Once I heard a Christian (a seminarian!) say, “I find a church that reads church creed(s) during its Sunday services cultish … Why read an old man-made document? Should we focus on Christ? After all, Christ is the one who saves, not a church creed.” Perhaps I shouldn’t share my “reaction” to him here 🙂 Yet this attitude is very common today. To what extent should we honor church tradition? Shouldn’t we focus on progress as we now live in different times with different needs? But what about the existence of many different sub-traditions within Christianity? This short reflection is a first and tentative attempt to say something about this complex matter.
SDG, Eko Ong
A tradition represents a community and a community embodies a tradition. In that sense, our tradition is treasured and valued since it represents our communal identity. After all, we are social beings, created to be relational to both our Creator and our neighbors. That’s why “it is not good that man is alone.” Yet in the wake of individualism, tradition is often devalued. Deep down inside, we are all individualistic. As mankind has fallen, the image of God is fractured. Along with it goes the fullness of our relational capacity. We make God-given things –including relationship– serve ourselves. As a result, relationship becomes a mere slave of one’s individualism.
When we are incorporated into the body of Christ, this fracture is being healed through our union with Christ. This fosters fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is with all the saints that we apprehend the incomprehensibility of God’s love (Eph 3:18). As we worship God, we are to approach him with reverence yet confidence in our High Priest Jesus Christ. We are surrounded with a cloud of witnesses as we fix our eyes upon the champion and the fulfiller of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2). All the New Testament writers, having continued yet found that the tradition embodied in Hebrew Bible was fulfilled in Christ, stress the importance of community for our faith. That’s why we are told to offer our (many) bodies as (one) sacrifice which is living, holy, and acceptable to God (Rom 12:1) just as Christ our High Priest has offered himself as the ultimate, once-for-all, living, holy, perfect, and acceptable sacrifice for his people (Heb 9-10). That’s why we are not to forsake the “Gathering” of believers (Heb 10:25).
Much more could be said about the importance of community in Scripture. This “in-Christ community” is not just my or your local church, but transcends space and time. How so? The Holy Spirit holds this community together through the community’s commitment to Scripture. This is manifest in our Christian tradition.
Philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Michael Polanyi and missionary Leslie Newbiggins recognize the role of tradition in shaping the “way of life” for a community. Likewise, Christian tradition gives us the vocabs/categories necessary for our communication and reasoning, such as God, Christ, Trinity, creation, sin, salvation, cross, resurrection, church, and so on. Without Christian tradition, we who call ourselves Christians cannot communicate intelligibly with one another. In fact, without tradition, learning and progress are simply impossible. If Scripture were to drop from the sky now, none of us would be able to understand it without the help of church tradition.
We have been redeemed. Yet due to the not-yet-ness of our redemption, our selfish nature still remains, waging war with our new nature in Christ. As individualism pervades our culture (even in Indonesia), the remnant of this selfish nature is awakened beyond measure. Its full-blown version comes out in modern evangelicalism: overt emphasis on inner feeling, personal experience, “what feels good or edifying to me,” “it’s between I and Jesus,” “as long as I go to heaven”, and “what works for me”, “God tells me things personally.” Undoubtedly spiritual experience plays a role in our knowing –or being known by– God. Yet if “Christianity” is so self-centered, why bother about community? Why bother about tradition?
So the slogan “no creed but Christ!” which is ironically a creed (a doctrine, an “anti-tradition” tradition) … Reading the Apostle’s creed or some excerpts from classic church confessions is often viewed as cultish or snore-fest. So what is needed is more “lively worship service.” It also takes a heavy toll on the gospel. The Philippian jailer question, taken out of context and “spiritualized”, has been turned into a kernel of the “gospel”: “What must I do to go to heaven after I die?” So salvation or eternal life is turned into the hope of spending time with Jesus in heaven. As Dr. Sinclair Ferguson (my systematic professor) once said, “Modern evangelicalism has turned the gospel of communal and bodily hope of resurrection in Christ on the last day into an individualistic and disembodied escape into some heaven.
Much more can also be said about the impact of individualism in the church today. In the final analysis, “no creed but Christ” is really a creed that divides a community into a bunch of atomistic individuals who are “autonomous” and can “grow spiritually” by themselves as long as each of them has a Bible, a stack of Christian books, and/or an access to high-speed internet. Yet if each of them starts meditating on Scripture as a whole, he or she will hopefully be driven back to the true community that is conducive to his or her spiritual growth … and hence, driven back to the precious Christian tradition in the communion of all the saints. After all, that’s what Scripture teaches.
Now which Christian sub-tradition? There are so many different sub-traditions and creeds. Suffice it to say, standing and dwelling within a time-tested and Scripture-centered tradition which appreciates and is teachable by our rich Christian heritage from day 0 (the small community of Jesus’ disciples who were in continuity with the Old Testament) to this day with an outlook toward the future is a good start.
But isn’t it true that different sub-traditions clash and cause division within the church? Such a concern is valid. There is a difference between tradition and traditionalism (a contemporary example is “confessionalism”).
Christian tradition (rooted in Scripture in the context of believing community) is meant to be a living tradition from day 0 to this day, not dead faith of the living people. Such a living tradition is embodied in many church creeds, confessions, and contributions of those who lived, walked, and breathed Scripture before us. And to ignore such is to set ourselves up for a loss – a huge loss. Traditionalism, on the other hand, is a form of sectarianism. It is idolatry which turns tradition to serve the pride of a group (e.g. “self-righteousness” whether in doctrines or deeds). It’s as harmful and divisive as individualism. In fact, one of the sins that Jesus addressed most in his earthly ministry was traditionalism.
Then how should we maintain the balance between the two? First, we should keep in mind that we all are vulnerable to both individualism (the illusion of “no creed but Christ”) and traditionalism (“our sub-tradition is the best and we have nothing to learn from other sub-traditions”). Both are rooted in pride and self (individual or group)-glorification. Second, Scripture keeps the tension between the two alive for a reason. It doesn’t allow a simple “let’s-take-this mid-point” solution. Different eras often call for different solutions. Yet rather than casting tradition away, tradition should allow some room to change when confronted with a new horizon – so long as it’s grounded in Scripture.
Perhaps this is one main challenge for the church today. Can different Christian sub-traditions serve together in mission without throwing their own sub-traditions into the trash? Can the differences (even perceived “contradictions”) be perceived as a dialectical richness within the tradition of divinely inspired Scripture? While I am tempted to say “No way! That’s as delusional as *No creed but Christ*!” based on our current state, I hope that it will start somewhere … maybe in Indonesia where Christians are minorities. Perhaps, just perhaps, without ignoring our creedal differences, we will learn to accept one another just as Christ has accepted us for the glory of God (Rom 15:7).