The Importance of Tradition

I recently argued for the Importance of History over at my blog. I was trying to figure out what to write here, and decided that I should expand my argument there into one that I have been known to make: an argument for the importance of tradition, especially in the Christian context.

If history teaches us not to repeat the failures of the past as well as gives us insight into things we may not have considered, tradition provides the same benefits with a little more work required. I should take a moment to define the term ‘tradition’ as I will be using it.

Tradition can be used to refer to intellectual tradition, but that is only part of what I mean by it. Tradition does include the intellectual arguments of old, but it also refers to the rituals and the actions of theologians of old. These sorts of ‘traditional’ beliefs may be seen as archaic, and in fact may be so, but they should not simply be tossed out for the reason of age. That which has stuck around for us to know and see it hundreds or thousands of years later should be only slowly thrown out, if at all.

So if tradition includes not only the thinking but the actions and even the rituals of old, what do we do with those old rituals? Do we follow them? I think the answer is something like ‘not necessarily.’ Much like we once ran away from Roman Catholicism’s legalism and into the arms of ignoring works, we have here run away from tradition into the arms of ignorance. Intellectually this seems clear. After all, how can we fully understand the Bible if we only read it from our 21st century perspective? We put the Bible above all other documents (rightly so, in this writer’s opinion) but often lack the context in which it was written. Reading early church fathers, for example, provides some cultural context into the ways in which the Bible was initially understood.

But all of that is not terribly controversial. Most people are okay with the suggestions I have just presented. Sure, a few might argue that the Bible can speak to us today because it is a timeless document. While there is truth to that, God did speak to a specific time and we should understand that time to understand His words. What is controversial, at least in evangelical circles, is when I suggest that there is a benefit to participating in the rituals of the ancient church.

When attending a church service that is more ‘high church’ in nature, you begin to get a feeling for the sort of benefit I am suggesting. Aside from the benefit of worshiping and following the same scripture reading as the entire world (which provides a sense of community), having a church service look like the same one that a theologian of old attended gives us insight into how the Bible was interpreted. When the service begins with the procession of a crucifix, each person bowing down to Christ, there is something that orients the body in addition to the soul. Many evangelical services do a much better job of orienting the soul than the body, since any sort of physical ritual is feared to become only that ritual. Usually this takes the form of singing songs, where the worship leader will say something to the effect of ‘do not just sing this song, but mean it. Do not let this become a ritual.’

Aside from arguing that rituals may be good for the soul all on their own, I would say that our fear of empty rituals have brought us away from the benefits that can be found therein. When we interact with rituals, we should be thoughtful and consider the meaning behind each action. If we allow these thoughts to consume us when we do the rituals, then we can have yet another method of moving ourselves into a place where we can properly worship our Creator. If before I could only orient myself to worship by singing a song, now I can do so by looking at a crucifix, or kneeling, or even smelling incense or wine.

And any time we have more ways to remind ourselves of the Creator we are living for, we are doing better than we were before.

Christ Abide.

  1. I read an anthropology article about how shamans for jungle tribes sometimes hold a physical dart to represent a spiritual “dart” shot into a member of the tribe by another tribe’s shaman. The article asks whether the shaman is deceiving the tribe member. One answer to the question is that the physical dart is not a lie, rather, it is like a prop. The tribe member has faith in the shaman’s ability to heal, not in the authenticity of that particular “dart.”

    Here, you talk about Christians rejecting rituals as potentially empty. To add to your point, “meaningless” things like holy water and blessed salt and oil used in anointing the sick (James 5:14-15) sometimes give literal substance to actions of faith. For example, I recently read a book on spiritual warfare that described the usage of blessed salt in countering a case of spiritual attacks. A person was directed to sprinkle salt in the form of a cross and pray for deliverance when the attack began, and the person was delivered. The specific action or materials used were not important, it was the person’s faith in God’s ability to deliver them that made the prayer effective. God told the Israelites to take the Ark of the Covenant into battle at various times, and God granted them victory when their faith was in him. In 1 Samuel 4, the Philistines capture the Ark when the Israelites tried to use it to guarantee victory in battle.

    Individual Christians should talk to their church leaders before trying to change their respective denominational traditions, but perhaps Protestants should think twice before tossing tradition as mere flounces and frippery. Faith is in God and not in his tools, but we must not deny his ability to use them!

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