Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 20, 2012

A Forgotten Gift: Recovering the wisdom of the Christian tradition

The ancient creeds, confessions and historical writings of the faith are often disregarded in the contemporary church. This suspicion started in the radical wing of the reformation, which gave birth to the free church and evangelical movements. Due to the abuses of church teaching in the medieval church, the radical reformation sought to do away with the tradition and seek to study scripture alone.

Today this suspicion of the tradition of the church is stronger then the teachers of the reformation intended. It is popular today to say that we just need Jesus and we should forget about all that tradition stuff. Theological distinctiveness and accountability is on the decline. Christian writer Donald Miller, for example, was quoted in a recent article saying, “I would not be interested in a conversation about theology. It seems like a distraction in a way if it’s not about Jesus and if it’s not about people.”

To be honest I sympathize with Miller at times. I agree that some of the theological tradition of the church can get bogged down in intricacies that take us away from the heart of Jesus. I agree that we need to put scripture first, and base our life and teaching on the words of Jesus. Nevertheless, I came across a book last week that jolted me out of my modern arrogance by reminding me that we actually have a lot to gain from paying attention to our Christian tradition.

The book I’m referring to is titled, Letters to a Young Calvinist, by James K.A. Smith. I studied this book with the group of Reformed pastors that I meet with on a monthly basis down in Portland. One of the key insights I gained from this book is that the tradition of the church is really a gift that God has given the church. Smith writes, “Ultimately, such “bible-only,” anti-creedal traditions (those traditions that reject ‘tradition’!) are spurning the gifts promised us by Christ through his Spirit.”

Smith’s point is that we have a lot to gain from those who have gone before us. His quote is based on a discussion of Ephesians 4:1-12, where Paul reminds us that Christ has given us teachers as a gift to help the church mature. Smith reminds us that this gift is not simply our current writers and teachers, but also the teachers that have gone before us. If we reject the tradition of the church we are rejecting a body of wisdom that can offer us guidance and discernment. The tradition is a gift in that it teaches us what has been important throughout the years and it can prevent us from making similar mistakes.

Furthermore, Smith argues that by rejecting the tradition we are essentially saying that God has not been at work in the history of the church. The modern bias that everything prior to our generation is unhelpful and boring is pretty presumptuous. We are assuming that God was absent from the church for the past 2000 years.

So what does this mean practically? Smith may be right in saying that the tradition is important, but what does this mean for my own faith development? I think it means that we need to supplement our reading of scripture with voices that have gone before us. It means that we should not only read the latest best sellers, but also read the classics of the Christian tradition.

When I was in seminary I took a course where we read a number of the Christian classics. As I read these books I got in touch with a piety and commitment to Christ that was so much deeper then what I often encounter in contemporary Christianity. It opened me up to a whole new world of wisdom and insight. By paying attention to the witnesses that have gone before us we can avoid the danger of simply getting caught up in the assumptions of our current culture.

This also means that we should pay attention to the consensus that was developed over the years of the Christian church. We live in an age where, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the authoritative self has replaced the authoritative text.” I often hear people come to their own conclusions about scripture without any accountability to the broader Christian tradition. The reality is that the bible can be said to mean almost anything; therefore, I think we need to supplement our reading of scripture by paying attention to the way it has been interpreted and applied throughout the history of the church.


  1. I’ve been actually working on a blog post of my own that kinda/sorta addresses this issue, but from the perspective of being a pastor of one of those anti-creedal, “Bible-only” traditions.

    I think that quote from Smith does our perspective a bit of a disservice–it is not that we non-creedal Christians actively spurn tradition itself–it is that we spurn tradition that we think has, on balance, done more harm than good. We consider creeds to have divided, rather than united, the universal church. We try to be discerning and deliberate in determining what about the Christian tradition is worth honoring today, and what needs to be left respectfully in the past.

    Because it isn’t that we simply reject all tradition. I, along with probably all of my congregants, hold the ideas and scholarship of many past theologians in incredibly high esteem. We are under no illusions that we have all the answers, and we recognize that there are those who have come before us who are far more insightful and intelligent in articulating the nature of God. Personal creeds, as opposed to corporate creeds, can be very useful in helping an individual articulate what it is they believe. But a corporate creed can be a very difficult thing to take in, especially for an unchurched person.

    I do empathize very, very strongly with your point about holding people accountable regarding their beliefs–that folks can get the Bible to say whatever they want it to say. I think that is one of the most fundamental tasks of a pastor, or Bible scholar, or theologian, or church leader–to allow for the libertarianism that comes from post-Reformation Christianity, in which people were liberated to read and wrestle with the Bible as they needed, but to offer accountability in how they do so. I just happen to not think that a human-created creed is a way to offer that necessary accountability.

  2. Hey Eric,

    Really appreciate your push back on this issue. It is certainly something that deserves more discussion then a short blog post!

    First, I think it is important to make a distinction between the form and content of the creeds and confessions of the church. You mention the idea that a corporate creed can be difficult for a new church go-er to take in. While I think that the content of the ancient creeds give us some important guidance, I agree that the form of how they transmit these ideas is unhelpful in our culture.

    We need to create space for folks to discover these ideas and appropriate them personally. So, for example, I think the catechisms are terrible educational tools – getting people to memorize pre-fabricated answers to leading questions does not allow for interaction, critique and personal application. Nevertheless, I find that some of the conclusions of the Heidelberg Catechism give us some important direction. I think the creeds and confessions need to be applied or used in a discerning way. I took issue with Miller’s comment about ignoring theology and speaking about Jesus, but in practice I think he is actually makes an important point. I think our teaching should be interactive and narrative in focus. I just want to call that for what it is – theology. It is just narrative theology!

    Second, I would agree that there are aspects of the churches historical teaching that should be left in the past. This, as you know, was what brought about the reformation – tradition was contradicting scripture in many ways. James Smith mentions elsewhere in his book the concept of semper reformanda (always reforming) as a key part of interacting with the tradition. Even the Belgic Confession has a clause that reminds us that the creeds and confession of the church stand under scripture and must be open to critique and dialogue. However, I think we sometimes have swung too far in our rejection of the historical teaching of the church. D.H. Williams writes, “Protestants have too quickly responded by throwing the (Roman Catholic) baby out with the (Tradition) bathwater.” Part of what Smith is suggesting is that we need to pay attention to the dialogue that has gone before us. This does not mean there is no room for discernment and critique, but it also means we need to pay attention to the tradition.

    Third, (and this is just getting technical), I sometimes find it ironic that those who appeal to the Bible while rejecting the ancient tradition, fail to recognize that the Bible was the product of the tradition they reject. The reality is that the decision on what books to include in the Bible was itself the product of the early church. The ‘bible only’ that we cling to was actually compiled by those who had made decisions about gnosticism, the divinity of Christ and so on.

    Lastly, we probably do disagree on the validity of the creeds. You mention that, “we consider creeds to have divided, rather than united, the universal church.” I think the ancient creeds did make some important distinctions regarding the nature of Christ and the trinitarian nature of God that were important distinctions to make. I do think that the tradition of the church has upheld some important boundary markers for Christian orthodoxy.

    Differences aside I do think you are brilliant and I think we should still go out for coffee a lot!

  3. As a Protestant, I’ll be the first to admit that we sometimes pretend (unconsciously) that church history began in the year 1517, and I think there are Protestant churches still reflexively trying to remove themselves as far from Roman Catholicism as possible. What I find ironic is that it seems many of those churches, like Roman Catholic catechism, try to apply sweeping answers without room for personal application and critique. As they say, the fear is in the wish!

    And yes, we probably do disagree on the value of creeds. I agree that the early creeds upheld important boundaries of orthodoxy–but that also in turn labeled some Christ believers and followers as unorthodox. The council of Nicea axed Arianism, even though Arius himself did indeed believe in Jesus as the Son. History is written by the winners, and I think that the potential for labeling Christ-affirming faithful as unorthodox is a big enough risk that I don’t see the appeal in overly defining Christian orthodoxy.

    But your point about how the canon of the Bible came to be is especially powerful. The Bible in its present form is definitely a product of its time and inherently defines some level of orthodoxy. But the difference between creed and Scripture is, to me, the same as the difference you highlight between catechisms and other educational tools. Scripture allows for interaction in a way that, at least for me, creeds and catechisms do not.

    Thanks for continuing to challenge me to expand my own spiritual horizons, whether over coffee or over the blogosphere! I know you got a pretty big event coming ’round the bend, but I always enjoy coffee with you whenever you have the time!

    • Hey Eric,

      I appreciate your point about how some of our creeds and confessions ‘overly define orthodoxy.’ I’ve struggled with this in my own tradition with the Canons of Dordt. I find that this confession tries to provide too much definition to the complex issue of how human freedom and divine sovereignty interact. The biblical treatment of this issue seems to allow for much more complexity and diversity.

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