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On the Importance of Tradition in the Church

by Gil Sanders
On the Importance of Tradition in the Church

This is a guest post by Jeff Leach

For many people (most of us, in fact), beliefs change over time. If you were to carefully examine every belief you hold now and compare it to ever belief you held 10 or 15 years ago, while you may find a strong correlation between your core beliefs of both past and present (then again, you may not), you’re still almost guaranteed to notice that some of the smaller, less vital beliefs are no longer the same. Usually, this is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the marks of an intelligent person is, after all, the ability to carefully examine their own beliefs and determine whether or not they correspond with the truth; and, if it is discovered that some of those beliefs are not true, they are changed in order to align with the truth.

In that process of examining our beliefs, we should consider the source of and reason for these beliefs, as well. The sources of our beliefs can be varied, as can the reasons we might point to when explaining why we hold those beliefs. Some things are believed because it’s how we are raised (ie: a person is far more likely to be racist if their parents are also racist than they would be if their parents believed in racial equality). Of course, we cannot lay the charge that such upbringing is the sole reason a person holds to a given belief, as that would constitute a genetic fallacy; not to mention, for most of us that hold a belief from childhood into adult life, we generally find an independent reason for maintaining said belief. Another source of any given belief may be in experience; for example, an avid supporter of the 2nd Amendment may hold their view because the possession of a firearm saved their life or the life of a loved one. We may hold something as true because we have spent time weighing the arguments both for and against it and came to the conclusion that the arguments in favor of the belief were stronger. Or we may believe something based on emotion, on how the belief makes us feel, or how something else makes us feel in relation to the belief.

You may at this point be asking where exactly am I going with all of this. It’s a fair question; I expect that I’ve yet to say much of anything that you didn’t know or haven’t otherwise considered before. Well, I’m getting to it. There are two (or maybe three, depending on how you choose to look at it) things that I want to focus on right now. One has already been mentioned: belief based on feeling or emotion. The second you may already be familiar with: the recent walking away from the faith of some prominent people in contemporary American Christianity, namely Joshua Harris (author of the since-retracted book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”) and Marty Sampson (a singer/songwriter for Hillsong). The former filtered through the examples of the latter will then lead into my main point: the importance of historic tradition in the Christian faith, particularly in three main areas: theology, worship, and intellectual pursuits and academia.

As has already been mentioned, you may be aware of the waves currently being made by the (apparent) apostasy of some notable “leaders” in contemporary Christian circles. While I myself am only personally aware of Mr. Harris and Mr. Sampson, I suppose there may be others, as well (I tend to not follow celebrity news, within or without the Church). Inevitably, such events tend to raise certain questions (some of them raised by the people in question, themselves, as Mr. Sampson’s since-deleted post made quite clear). Some of these questions, for us, are born of shock and confusion. Aren’t these people leaders? Do we not look to them for guidance (at least, some of us)? If these people are falling away from the faith, what might that mean for the rest of us? Such questions, among plenty of others (too many to list, really), are a natural response to such events. Perhaps one of the most pertinent of such questions goes roughly along the lines of this: “What, exactly, has caused these people to fall away from the faith; and what can I do, if anything, to avoid doing the same?”

An answer that I would put forward (though undoubtedly there will be many others offered by other people, not all of which would be incompatible with my own) is, in a word, tradition. At this point, however, a couple things should be made clear. Firstly, no matter how harsh I might sound (though I shall try to avoid doing so), this is not going to be a hit piece on Mr. Harris or Mr. Sampson, nor is it going to attack “the dangers of non-traditional Pentecostal and Evangelical theology and worship practices.” There are, quite frankly, enough people doing that already, and I am not sure that the “fire and brimstone” response is appropriate. Secondly, this is not going to be a “bow to the traditions decreed by Rome, or risk being lost” piece, either (I am Lutheran, not Roman Catholic, after all).

You may be asking what tradition has to do with not falling away from the faith. It is a fair question, I would say. It also opens up a number of other questions and issues. For example, Mr. Harris recently said that by all the measures he has of what it is to be a Christian, he is not one. When I read that, my immediate response was to ask a question: “Just what are your measures of what it is to be a Christian?” You may be tempted to think that the answer of what measures being a Christian is fairly obvious, yet I would caution against such thinking for the moment. It is a question which is likely as not to receive as many different answers as there are people who are asked the question. Certainly there will be some commonalities throughout all of them (try and find someone who genuinely thinks you can be a Christian without believing in Christ), yet there will nevertheless be differences. Some people will include things that others will not. Some will consider as binding what others will not. Some will think certain matters are of salvific importance, yet others will disagree.

To my knowledge, Mr. Harris never specified just what his measurements of being a Christian are. Those more familiar with him than myself and/or have followed these developments more closely than I may have that knowledge (I was not raised in the “purity culture” that he helped guide and even defined, plus, having come from a different theological background, means that I’ve never had any reason to follow him, or even really be aware of him beyond the vague recognition of the existence of his books, before now). I will, then, point to the history and traditions of the Church for an answer: the Creeds. The better part of 2,000 years ago (within the first few centuries of the Church’s existence), many different leaders of the Church came together and gave us what we might call statements of faith, which have ever since defined the Christian faith. The first, and also simplest, of these is the Apostles’ Creed (whether one accepts what Rome says about it actually being formulated by the Apostles themselves, or believes it is merely a later summary of Apostolic teaching, is currently irrelevant). The Nicene Creed follows a similar pattern, adding a bit more detail and giving greater emphasis to its Trinitarian formula. The Athanasian Creed is the longest and most complex, yet is also the best explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity that we are likely to have in this life. Together, these three Creeds, handed down to us by tradition (they are, after all, not actually in Scripture, but merely summarize the teachings of Scripture), provide us with the lowest common denominator of the absolute essentials of the Christian faith (the text of all three of these Creeds can be found at bookofconcord.org/creeds if you are by chance unfamiliar with them). You may find yourself thinking that other details should be added to these bare-bones essentials of the faith, such as biblical inerrancy, but I will not now attempt to debate the wisdom (or lack thereof) of doing so. It is clear, however, that we often measure ourselves as Christians by a variety of other standards. We may judge whether someone is a “true Christian” (whatever that means, as it seems to change, depending upon the context) by a number of indicators: their works, do they live and act as we expect them to; their theology, does the way they believe and interpret Scripture align with our own understanding; their worship, do their church practices appear acceptable to us; their experience, do they have the same experiences (emotional or otherwise) of the faith as we do, and so on. Put this way, you may find yourself asking if it’s right or even fair to judge those who claim to be Christian in such terms. It’s a fair, and necessary, question. I would personally suggest that some of these questions (though admittedly not all), may even be necessary at times, though it will ways be circumstantial and will always require caution. The question then returns to the example of Mr. Harris: what are his measurements of being a Christian? Or, more directly, what are ours? If they are questions of the latter sort, we may well find that we do not “measure up” as “true Christians,” and be led to even further despair. Tradition provides a measurement by which we can answer whether we are Christian: three statements of faith, or Creeds, the teachings of Scripture which they summarize (and even hand down to us, yet the fact that we have the Scriptures by way of tradition is in and of itself worthy of an entire, dedicated discussion), and the question, “do you believe this?”

The case of Mr. Sampson is, in my own opinion, far more telling. It is also an example of why the intellectual tradition of the Church is so important. In his “soapbox moment” (his own words), he almost rants, “How many miracles happen. Not many. No one talks about it. Why is the Bible full of contradictions? No one talks about it. How can God be love yet send four billion people to a place, all coz they don’t believe? No one talks about it,” and he may have many other seemingly unanswered questions that he simply did not bring up. To many, myself included, this statement betrays astounding ignorance on Mr. Sampson’s part. It is one thing to not know the answers to these questions (questions which, I believe, should be asked), the real issue is that he simply declares that “no one talks about it.” That part is blatantly false. Christianity has been around for roughly 2,000 years, and some of the greatest minds in history have been (or currently are, for those still living) Christian. With such a long history, the likelihood that nobody would ever ask (or just generally talk) about such matters is infinitesimally small. One can merely look these questions up online, and they’ll immediately be bombarded with about as many answers as there are people running their own websites on apologetics or doctrine, or blogs, or podcasts, etc. You can go to libraries or bookstores and find numerous books in philosophy and theology (often going hand-in-hand) by some of the intellectual giants of the church that deal with these matters in-depth. The Church has a very long history of dealing with these matters; in fact, the amount of material that can be found is so large that it can be overwhelming and it can be hard to know where to start.

There is also the matter of the fact that Mr. Sampson’s Christianity is that of Hillsong, one of the largest and most influential (as well as controversial) Pentecostal church bodies in the world. The issue with this is that Pentecostalism itself only dates to the beginning of the 20th century. I find this to be a problem because, in my own observations, the more recent a theological tradition is, the less connected it seems to be to the larger history and tradition of the Church at large. There are, of course, certain exceptions. For example, Mormonism has been around longer than Pentecostalism, Pentecostalism is at least Christian (albeit I would argue it is deeply flawed and heterodox; and even heretical at times, such as “Oneness” Pentecostals who deny the Trinity), Mormonism is blatantly heretical and non-Christian. The reason this matters is that, if my own experience is anything to go by, Pentecostal Christians are some of the least connected to Church history and tradition people that there are. As with the previous statement about theological traditions, there are of course some people I know that are exceptions. I know a couple of Pentecostal pastors, at least one of whom I know to be an avid reader of theologians both past and present (indeed, I derive some humorously ironic pleasure from the fact that he has often been fond of quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the past [Bonhoeffer was, like myself, Lutheran]). Yet on the other hand, I starkly remember mentioning something about the Athanasian Creed to a (Pentecostal) Christian friend of mine at school, to which I received a blank stare and a “what?” What all of this means is that Mr. Sampson, however honest his faith has been in the past and however earnest his search for truth is now, has been placed at a disadvantage for a long time by being disconnected from the history and traditions of those in the Church that came long before him.

As I fear that this may be getting to be just a little too long, and I have already (extremely) briefly covered the importance of tradition in theology and intellectual pursuits, I now turn to the importance of tradition in worship. I suspect that, more so than the other topics covered, this one is likely to be the most controversial. On the one hand, many (myself included) see such tradition as an important part of historic Christianity, a part that helps to safeguard orthodoxy in the practice of our faith as seen in acts of worship. On the other, however, many may see it as stifling, “religious” (an almost-always misused term), or most damning, cultural imperialism (an attitude which betrays its underlying ignorance, as no one alive today can truly claim to come from the cultures that created the liturgies used by traditional churches today). Tradition in our worship is important, and for a number of reasons. For one, elements of traditional liturgy extend back to the earliest centuries of the Church, and can provide us with an almost-tangible sense of continuity with the historic Church and the saints of old. I personally find this fact to be quite powerful, and worthy of respect in its own right. The liturgy also draws heavily upon Scripture, keeping every act of worship grounded in the Word. For example, as I sit here looking at my hymnal (Lutheran Service Book, Divine Service Setting One, for any that might wish to look for references), many of the liturgical elements have small subtext citations of Scripture. The liturgy for Confession and Absolution (as Lutherans, we do this corporately, rather than privately as Roman Catholics do; though we retain private confession as well, for those who wish it) cites various passages of Scripture, including 1 John 1, John 20, John 1, and Philippians 1. The Kyrie cites Mark 10:47, as we echo Bartimaeus’ cry for Christ to have mercy on us. In more than one location, the Psalms are interjected, connecting us to songs of worship that extend back to the days of the Old Testament. The Gloria in Excelsis (one of the hymns of praise) cites Luke 2 and John one; the other option for the hymn cites Revelation, chapters 5 and 19. The Gospel acclamation cites John 6, or during Lent, Joel 2. The Service of the Sacrament (that is, the liturgy surrounding Holy Communion) cites Colossians, Psalms, and Matthew, among others. Even some of the hymns are derived from Scripture, such as those that take the Magnificat and put it to music. I suspect that I made my point a number of examples ago: tradition in worship, exemplified in the historic liturgies of the Church, keep our attention on God and the worship itself grounded in Scripture. These are important elements that are largely missing from the worship of non-traditional churches. Even the architecture is noticeably different. Altars adorned with historic symbols of the faith (crucifixes, unadorned crosses, the chi-rho, etc.) are replaced with stages for worship bands; liturgy and hymns grounded in Scripture are replaced with pop-rock songs, many of which are not even necessarily recognizable as worship songs if removed from context; sacramental theology, wherein God extends His grace to us through tangible means (namely Baptism and the Eucharist) is virtually nonexistent; in short, the very act of worship sans tradition seems in no small part, essentially man-focused, intent on creating an emotional experience for the audience or on entertaining them (in some cases with TV-like gimmicks), often both.

When worship becomes an emotional experience, or entertainment, to be consumed, the effects can be dangerous. What happens when the experience becomes stale? When the gimmicks no longer work, the songs no longer inspire waves of emotion? What happens when one, in the midst of a crisis of faith, finds that their worship experience is shallow? Songs meant to inspire happiness fail to speak to existential fears and sorrows. When one longs to have their faith and life more deeply rooted in Scripture, churches that instead have worship that sounds like a concert (and in some cases, looks like one; lasers, smoke machines, and all) is, at best, unhelpful. At worst, it is a hindrance that, left unchecked, might lead one to the conclusion that the Christian faith is so shallow that it has no true meaning, and therefore it might as well be abandoned. When one longs for truth and is instead met with banality, faith can suffer. It is hard to trust in Christ when one is disconnected from Him in vital ways; when one doesn’t know Him as well as they think, and then the hard times come. When one’s theology is heavily dependent upon the preponderance of miracles, which often as not do not come (or worse yet, are sometimes faked by certain unscrupulous types), and the Sacraments are almost unknown, ignored or even despised by those that do not understand them, where is God to be found? Scripture tells us of many miracles, to be sure. Yet Scripture is thousands of years old. The miracles that vindicated the faith of Peter and the other Apostles may seem too distant to really matter for us.

This is, I suspect, at least a part of what happened for Mr. Sampson. Yet if the clarifications he has offered since his initial statement are true, and he is indeed starting to read and weigh the arguments of the likes of John Lennox (a notable Christian scholar and apologist, and a living example of the ongoing Christian intellectual tradition) and others, then he has indeed taken a step in the right direction. Yet I would urge him (and anyone else finding themselves in a similar position) to dig deeper. Read Edward Feser, a prominent Thomistic philosopher (that is, a follower of the philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas) and Christian apologist; one whom I greatly admire on a personal level (I admit to being somewhat biased, as I have taken virtually every class he teaches, and have on many occasions taken time to ask him questions I’ve had about philosophy and the Roman Catholic Church). Read Martin Luther, the great Reformer and a passionate theologian and preacher, especially where the Sacraments are concerned. Read Saint Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest scholar the Christian church has ever known. Absolutely read Saint Augustine; The Confessions is relatively short, but nevertheless incredibly powerful, and his work On The Trinity should provide greater insight to the Athanasian Creed (which does, in fact, borrow heavily from Augustine’s work). Read the Church Fathers, if you can, their works provide important insight to the early Church, and to this day form an important foundation for many different aspects of Christian theology (and many of the individual theological traditions under that larger umbrella). While you are unlikely to agree with all of these people, or even with all of the things said by even a single one of them, they are nevertheless of monumental importance. All of these things, brought together, show in no uncertain terms, that the Christian faith is amazingly deep, rich, complex, and vibrant. Immersed in these historic traditions of the Church, connected to the saints of old by practices and teaches extending back nearly two millennia, firmly rooted in Scripture, and constantly refreshed and revitalized by the Sacraments, one finds one’s faith strengthened immensely. It is, ultimately, for this reason that tradition is of such importance to the Christian Church.


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Brian Forbes September 18, 2019 - 8:52 am

You give some good reasons to embrace tradition. And it’s interesting that you get there through Luther, who was quite outspoken against Catholic tradition. I can see value in your perspective.

However, I can see value in the new as well. The old springs produce fresh water, but there are some new springs that produce even better water. For instance:
Messianic Judaism is very new. It became popular some time around the 70s and started growing. It’s one of the fastest growing movements anywhere. And yet it is very old. It borrows from the traditions of Judaism. It also borrows from the doctrinal wisdom of the church fathers It is my favorite because it alone makes sense of Mt. 5:17-19, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 66, Zech. 14, Ezekiel’s 3rd temple, and Paul’s purification at the temple that got him arrested and sent to Rome.

On worship, I can see the value of old hymns. Some of those are very powerful sermons. Some have bad doctrine, but the good ones held up through the centuries. But then you listen to Rend Collective. I haven’t found a single lyric in any of their music that makes me want to turn it off. And it draws me closer to God every time. Andy Park writes amazing lyrics based in scripture. Sons of Korah is very skillfully putting Christian music to scriptural lyrics. There’s no condemning any of that.

And that’s why I think a more balanced conclusion is this. We shouldn’t judge any of these people. We can look at what they are doing and decide if we want to do it too. We can judge whether it’s right to have a discussion (as you just did), but condemning another servant is off limits (Ro. 14:4). We let God be the judge.

All of these traditions held up through the centuries because they were quality. But they were new at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rend Collective is being played in churches 200 years from now. And if not them, their influence will carry throughout the world for many years. I see that Luther has held up for many centuries. There may be movements (Calvary Chapel) that is around for many more centuries. It matters that God’s servants are devoted. The rest is seasoning – flavors in the dish.

Jeff Leach September 18, 2019 - 3:26 pm

Thank you.

I would like to point out, however, that I never said there was no value in the new. I very purposefully steered clear of making any such statement, just as I avoided saying that just because something is “tradition” it is therefore good. I thought that Luther was a good example of what I wanted to get at; because while you are right, and he did speak out against certain Roman Catholic traditions, he did not throw tradition out entirely. There is a difference between tradition for its own sake (or that of the agenda of whoever claims authority over that tradition) and that which is intended to safeguard orthodoxy and provide a sense of continuity and unity within the church (Christ did, after all, rebuke the Pharisees for violating the word of God for the sake of their own traditions).

I would also point out that I did not condemn contemporary Christian music as a whole. You are right, there are some groups and songs that are doctrinally solid, and I cannot (nor would I want to) condemn them. I very specifically aimed my criticism at the fact that some such music is more about creating an emotional experience to be consumed than anything else. However, even that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I might just argue that maybe it shouldn’t be used in a worship setting; but the song itself, taken simply as a piece of art, may be just fine.

The last thing I will say is that I was quite explicit about the fact that I am not judging anyone in this piece. I quite literally said that I do not think the judging, “fire and brimstone” response is appropriate. The most I did was question Mr. Harris’ measurements of what it is to be a Christian, since he (so far as I know) never actually said what those were, and I suggested that Mr. Sampson’s Pentecostal background put him at a disadvantage in regard to the questions he was asking and the claims he was making about them. In neither case was judgment passed on them as people, because you are right, that is not what we should be doing.

Brian Forbes September 19, 2019 - 6:27 am

We’re on the same page then. Good.


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