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Brief theses on Church tradition

by Tim Gallant

1. Scripture alone is our ultimate authority for determining faith and practice. There is no court of appeal that sits above it.

2. However, this is not the same as suggesting that we only appeal to Scripture when seeking to understand proper faith and practice. Ultimate authority does not disqualify derivative or secondary authority, but rather qualifies it and conditions how we treat it.

3. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). It is therefore improper to ignore the witness of the Church when we seek to understand that truth. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit has been granted to the whole body of believers. It is therefore arrogant to ignore the interpretations of others, thinking that we alone possess sufficiency to understand all truth.

4. The appeal to the Church and its tradition is therefore necessary, although not altogether conclusive. For rarely has the Church spoken with absolutely one voice everywhere and at all times. Consequently, we are again called back to the necessity of holding up the witness of the Church to the infallible light of Scripture.

5. The fallibility of the Church's tradition is universal. That is, not only is the pre-Reformation Roman Church to be considered fallible, but so too are the various streams of post-Reformation tradition, whether we are speaking of Lutheranism, the various Baptist traditions, or the Reformed. This is not to say that the faults among these various traditions are all precisely equal either in quantity or significance, but that all traditions of the one Church are both authorized to be heard, and unauthorized to go unquestioned.

6. This means that post-Reformation (i.e. Protestant) tradition may speak with one voice on an issue, and still be wrong. While we understandably, and without blame, presuppose that our spiritual forebears were probably right in what they handed down to us, we must remember that our spiritual forebears go beyond Luther and Calvin. They trace back through the Church of all ages, and therefore back to traditions which may or may not remain with us in Protestantism. It is our duty to study the tradition of the Church sympathetically and attempt to understand the biblical grounding of that tradition, rather than either to accept it blindly or reject it impulsively.

7. If all of Church tradition speaks with one voice concerning an issue, however, we should highly suspect ourselves if we dare to differ from it. It is scarcely thinkable that the Holy Spirit will lead us individually into a truth He has left wholly unrevealed to the Church throughout the ages, although He may indeed advance the wisdom of the Church by nuancing or further defining existing understanding and practice.

8. When we confess the catholicity of the Church, we are not simply confessing something regarding the peculiar narrow ecclesiastical tradition (e.g. Reformed) within which we find ourselves. We are confessing the reality of a great body of believers throughout all times and places. This confession means that we must not consider our tradition wholly sufficient unto itself, with nothing to learn from the rest of Christ's body. The lamentable divisions in the Church of Jesus Christ indeed often make it difficult to appreciate the full scope of the truth confessed by Christians, but we must seek to overcome these difficulties.

9. We must be careful with how our terminology may limit our perspective. Saying we are 'conservative' is not very helpful. After Jeroboam's time, the conservatives in northern Israel were those who worshipped Yahweh by means of calves at Dan and Bethel; the conservatives in the sixteenth century were those who preferred to remain Roman Catholic rather than reform according to Scripture. 'Conservative' simply means that we do not wish to change, whereas very often we need to change in order to comply more fully with the will of God revealed in Scripture.

10. This helps to highlight the fact that the saying "we've never done it this way" is not at all the same as saying, "Christ's Church has never done it this way." What we have always done as long as we can remember may itself be the innovation, something relatively recent, even if it has been observed for some centuries. The fact that we cannot personally recall something being practiced does not mean that those advocating it are 'liberals' who are seeking change because they are 'so-called progressives,' or out of fondness for 'novelty.' It may merely mean that they know their history a little better than we do. For example, those advocating the admission of believers' children to the Lord's table may not be 'liberals' indifferent to the genuineness of faith, but rather self-consciously (small-c) catholic believers seeking to return to the covenantally-based practice of the early Church.

11. Likewise, just because we have always (in our memory) done something a certain way does not prove its genuineness or antiquity. An example among evangelicals would be the altar call. It has become a necessary part of worship among many churches, yet it is an invention less than two centuries old. Abolishing the practice need not be a 'liberal' denial of the need for conversion, but a recognition that the altar call is itself an innovation based upon a largely unbiblical redefinition of conversion. Likewise, while we Reformed, after the pattern of many centuries, require a rite known as profession of faith prior to communing the children of believers, it has certainly not always been this way. Abolishing this rite would mean abolishing something concerning which Scripture is silent, and is nowhere evident in the documents of the early Church. Therefore, by retaining the rite, we are being 'conservative' - but we are conserving an innovation.

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