“One generation shall commend your works to another” (Ps 145:4).
I’ve just finished two recent but very different books (here and here) on the nature of “tradition,” the church’s process of transmitting the faith once for all delivered to the saints from one generation to the next (1 Cor 15:3; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 2:2; Jude 3). The following are some thoughts sparked and/or provoked by these books.
(1) Central to the task of transmitting the faith from one generation to the next is the requirement of transmitting it as a whole, without addition or subtraction. In my judgment, the modern project of “mediating theology” often failed precisely in this regard. In an effort to gain a wider and more receptive hearing for the faith among a modern audience, mediating theology distinguished between the kernel or essence of the faith, which was to be preserved, and the husk of the faith, which could be set aside. The problem with such a strategy is not simply that it threatens to compromise the integrity of the faith–Scripture calls us to proclaim all God’s wonderful works (Ps 105:2), not just the works that might be palatable in a given age. The problem is also that it robs a particular generation of the full resources of the faith for addressing humanity’s greatest problems and God-given potential. As Cyril of Jerusalem long ago observed, the Christian faith, by virtue of its “wholeness” or “catholicity” “teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men’s knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly” and “universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.” Each generation thus requires “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:17).
(2) Because transmitting the faith from one generation to the next inevitably leads to questions from the catechized and to objections from opponents, tradition also requires interpretation. In handing on doctrine x or practice y, we are inevitably asked, “What does x mean?” “What does y look like?” “Is doing z consistent with doing y?” and so forth. For the faith to be transmitted successfully from one generation to the next, it must be understood. Interpretation is the servant of understanding. Interpreting the faith comes by way a number of different activities. Interpretation comes by way of commentary on biblical texts, by way of theological and moral clarification of Scripture’s meaning and implications, and, when necessary, by way of identifying and condemning misunderstandings and misapplications of the faith.
(3) Sometimes transmitting the faith requires the church to state, publicly and formally, what it believes Scripture teaches, or to condemn what it believes Scripture condemns. When this happens, transmitting the faith requires judgment. At certain times and certain places, specific issues have required the church to stand and say, “We believe this.” “We condemn that.” Such judgments represent definite closures of certain lines of thought or action, on the one hand, and promising openings for other lines of thought or action, on the other. The Creeds and Confessions of the church are the most obvious examples of such judgments.
(4) The preceding acts of interpretation and judgment are irreducibly linguistic acts which often require using extrabiblical terms and extrabiblical patterns of speech. There are two ready rules of thumb regarding such language. Rule 1: Invent as few extrabiblical terms/patterns of speech as possible in transmitting the faith from one generation to the next. Rule 2: Invent as many extrabiblical terms/patterns of speech as necessary to transmit the faith from one generation to the next. The first rule acknowledges that the church’s goal is to make its language and idiom as transparent as possible to the Bible’s language and idiom. The second rule acknowledges that it is the meaning, not simply the verbiage, of the Bible that is normative for Christian thought and life and that false teachers often seek to hide unbiblical meanings under the cloak biblical terminology.