Tradition in Reformation

The Value of Christian Tradition for Modern Reformation and Revival

By John H. Armstrong

Keeping the Ancient Fresh


Biblical and early church writers used the word “tradition” in both negative and positive ways. In spite of this fact, many Christians still react only negatively to the word. It sounds like something anti-biblical. These people think almost entirely, or so it seems, that tradition represents “human traditions,” i.e., dead and useless doctrines or practices advanced in opposition to the Holy Scripture. Others suggest that even if tradition doesn’t stand squarely against Scripture, it sounds too “old,” like an emphasis that lacks freshness and life. If anything is “robbed of the Holy Spirit” then it is church tradition. So I am often asked, “Why would anyone seek to advance Christian tradition?”

It is best to answer this question by going back to the earliest sources of Christian practice and reflection upon the witness of the apostles. This tradition is much more interesting, and more unified, than most modern actually readers realize. Clement of Alexandria (AD 150–215) said, “The tradition of the apostles was one.” Irenaeus (AD 130–200) wrote that the martyr Polycarp (AD 69–156) would speak of his “familiar relations with John, and with the rest of those who had seen the Lord. . . . Whatever things he heard from them (i.e., the apostles) respecting the Lord (concerning both his miracles and his teaching) he would recount—all in harmony with the Scriptures.” Irenaeus further observed, late in the second century, that “the church in Ephesus was founded by Paul. Furthermore, John remained among them permanently until the times of Trajan. That church is a true witness to the tradition of the apostles.” The church, in other words, is a witness to the apostles.

Irenaeus even spoke of tradition as though it was one with the apostles’ teaching. It was, he wrote, that which was “handed down to us.” Clement of Alexandria even wrote that “dogmas taught by strange sects will be brought forward. And against these dogmas will be opposed all those things that should be premised in accordance with the profoundest contemplation of the knowledge that will advance to our view, as we proceed to the renowned and venerable canon of tradition.” The question I asked for so many years is this: “What is ‘the venerable canon of tradition’ and how do we gain wisdom from this canon (rule) for the life of the church?”

The word tradition comes from the Latin traditio, which literally means to “hand over.” It particularly refers to that part of Christian teaching which was handed over orally. More formally, tradition has been understood as a whole set of beliefs and customs handed over orally from one generation to another and then another. This is the actual way the early Christian writers used the word.

Evangelical Protestants have a checkered history when it comes to dealing with the concept of a living tradition. While the early Reformers maintained it, and even argued that they were properly preserving it (“re-forming” the Church’s teaching according to its ancient roots), their heirs have almost entirely seen this word negatively. The facts, in this instance, are quite plain. Every Christian community has a tradition, even if it is a tradition they made up rather recently. The most anti-traditional churches, like modern seeker churches or the like, have a tradition they have created. Even the casual observer can see this and should admit it.

Whether your view of the written canon of Scripture is that it alone has authority, or that tradition has something important to say alongside of Scripture (with Scripture having the final authority for serious evangelicals), you must grant that patristic oral tradition shaped and formed the canon itself. Furthermore, you must also admit, if you spend any time reading and studying the patristic authors (the early church writers), that the life of the church community, and the interpretations of these voices regarding the teaching of the apostles, led to the development of an outward form of Christian faith in real churches. These are simple historical givens that are too often overlooked by modern evangelicals.

Another incontrovertible fact about this early Christian tradition is the way in which it functioned, and how it influenced the formation of the Canon. This is both complex and controversial. Polemicists—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—have had a field day with this subject, trying to prove this point or that in order to establish who is related to the true church and how. Professor John Van Engen, in addressing the issue of canonicity in the early church, has sounded what I believe to be a proper note: “The essential criterion was that these writings contain authentic apostolic tradition” (emphasis his).

So what is apostolic tradition? It clearly means more than what constitutes the words of the New Testament alone since the words, and the ideas behind them, preceded the canon. When you read these writers, what you find in them is an appeal to an orthodox “rule of faith.” This was probably a way of making reference to a short summary of the Christian faith like that spoken of in early baptismal creeds. It later resulted in documents like The Apostles’ Creed and related confessional statements, such as the fuller and more influential Nicene Creed. Again, it is an obvious fact, but it has often been missed—this “rule of faith” was spoken for decades, if not for several centuries, before it took any recognizable (and final) written form.

The early church faced a number of serious errors that threatened their nascent faith. None was more virulent and dangerous than Gnosticism. The way they faced this threat is most instructive. Between the first and fourth centuries a series of manuals was written, each appealing to the tradition of the apostles, to guide the church away from these Gnostic errors. These manuals, which contained what was believed to be the apostles’ wisdom on ethics and cultic practices, became what we know today as the Didache. By the fourth and fifth centuries the church had a fixed canon and depended less and less on this oral tradition. Most scholars agree that tradition was never entirely scrapped but rather was preserved alongside of, or subservient to, Scripture. (This is where the debate about final authority, and how the church understands it, finally divided the church in the West following the Protestant Reformation.) There is one thing we can safely conclude, and this was the position the Reformers themselves believed: Tradition was never seen as antithetical to Scripture!

I am persuaded that a healthy reflection upon the role and use of tradition leads to the kind of helpful observation made in the following statement:

Tradition was understood as the church’s enriching and interpretative reflection on the original deposit of faith contained in Scripture. This pertained preeminently to Christological interpretation of the OT. But it included as well the writings of earlier “fathers,” considered a product of the Spirit’s guidance and used to buttress the true faith; the decisions of bishops met in council under the Spirit’s aegis; and various rites that had been central to the practice of the faith. A few fathers (notably Basil) recognized that certain matters were not clearly, or even remotely prescribed in Scripture and ascribed these separately to apostolic tradition; e.g., to pray facing East, to baptize infants, to immerse three times, to fast on certain days, and the like. To count as authentic apostolic tradition, the father (Augustine and Vincent of Lerins in the West, e.g.) required that these be recognized and practiced throughout the whole church. (John Van Engen, in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology)

The Eastern Orthodox Church developed this issue in a different way, and this development, coupled with a number of other complex issues, eventually led to the parting of ways between the East and the West. This subject is immense and well beyond my simple point here.

The Catholic Church eventually developed a strong role for unwritten tradition that went beyond the plain and obvious meaning of Scripture (e.g., the role and place of the papacy, Mary’s immaculate conception, etc.). The sources appealed to were very often extra-biblical; thus the appeal was made through the papacy, and to the doctrine of the Magisterium, which became an important authority that went beyond the Bible alone. This was at the center of the revolt of the 16th century.

The Council of Trent then clarified Rome’s view and made unwritten tradition into a kind of second, equally authoritative scripture. Vatican Council I completed this process by declaring the church’s teaching office to be centered in an infallible papacy. (Again, this is a very simple overview and only touches upon a complex and contentious subject.) Cardinal Newman, in the 19th century, preferred to speak of a “living tradition,” thus avoiding a two-source idea. And Yves Congar, a modern Catholic voice (and a fine theologian), referred to a single apostolic tradition handed down in the church through written Scripture and tradition forming a complete unity.

Luther rejected all ecclesiastical traditions that he believed distorted the gospel. He seems to have severed the authority of Scripture almost entirely from church tradition. John Calvin appealed more directly to the Spirit’s role in illuminating believers through the written Word. Catholics believe the same but have always insisted that this process must finally come under the church’s authority. The Reformers argued for a perspicuous Word, i.e., one that was clear enough to require no traditions to finally understand it. I fundamentally agree with this position, but I also believe a healthy respect for the role of living tradition keeps the church from private opinions and silly modern heresies and trends that wreak havoc in our own time.

It is worth noting that most Protestants, by the 17th century, had formed their own distinctly different traditions, preparing confessions and standards that often became as binding on people’s consciences as those they had rejected in the sixteenth century.

Today we have a worldwide proliferation of independent and free (non-state) churches, particularly in America. These churches all, in various ways, confess to stand on Scripture alone and to recognize no traditional authorities outside of the Bible. Van Engen has noted that they “are in some sense the least free because they are not even conscious of what traditions have molded their understanding of Scripture.” It is precisely against this anti-tradition perspective that I am appealing in this case.

What I see happening in our time, under a fresh reforming spirit in many of our schools and churches, is a new realization that the Word of God never operates in a complete vacuum. The Scripture is not an isolated text that we come to all on our own. Others have also come here before us, and still others are coming in our time. Interpreting Scripture faithfully is not a private exercise but rather a community process. Arrogance and carnal independence must be checked by every good and reasonable means possible. The Reformers, and their thoughtful heirs, realize that the Scripture comes most alive in the gathered church. We desperately need a real recovery of both the Word and the Spirit. For this to happen I believe we need a proper role for tradition that will help lead us to a modern reformation.

In Protestant tradition preaching has always held the highest role in bringing the Word of God to the church. I believe, to provide one really important illustration, that both Scripture and tradition suggest a much higher place for the sacraments than many grant. Our evangelical fears about sacramentalism have plainly kept many of us from a proper understanding and practice of these God-ordained means of grace.

Further, if preaching has held such a big role in our tradition then we need to ask, “How do the sermons we hear, and the things we have been taught by these sermons, relate to the larger and wider church tradition?” Even more particularly, “What has this great tradition to say to our worship (both public and private), spiritual formation (especially our practices of devotion), and mission (domestic and foreign) to the world?” These core concerns form commitments that relate to both Scripture and tradition as I have increasingly sought to unite them.

You do not have to grant tradition an equal authority with Scripture to see very quickly that the “wisdom of tradition” may well have a great deal to teach us that will enrich our worship, spiritual formation, and mission. A balanced emphasis might well lead us to a new reformation and revival that does more than create another evangelical prairie fire that burns out in a matter of days. That is what I am praying for myself.


Dr. John Armstrong is president of Act 3 Ministries.

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