The Power and Danger of Tradition, Even for Those Who Claim They Don’t Have Any

I recently read this powerful quote on tradition from The Case for Covenant Communion: “It is the power and danger of tradition that it can create a paradigm of understanding and interpretation so compelling and satisfying that it renders many minds oblivious to problems and incapable of imagining another viewpoint.” (15)

Of course, in many evangelical circles today, it is a matter of great pride not to have a tradition. Entire denominations today claim to be free from tradition. This is obvious nonsense. No human is free of tradition, including all denominations and faith groups who pride themselves on having no tradition.

I don’t hate tradition. When it is consistent with the Bible, I love it. Tradition, when consistent with Scripture, is a wonderful thing. However, when inconsistent, it can so effectively blind the eyes, stop the ears, and dull the mind as to prevent even the consideration of the most cogent Word-based arguments.

No, I am no enemy of tradition. But, that said, all tradition, even tradition held by those who claim to hold to no tradition, must be answerable to the Scriptures. Further, and perhaps even more importantly, we must be prepared to not only examine but discard those traditions that, when compared to the Bible, are found wanting.

Further, I have found that tradition that is held by those who claim to hold no tradition is even more powerful because those traditional beliefs cannot be recognized as such.  A tradition that cannot be recognized as a tradition becomes even more powerful and potentially dangerous.

I have recently had the opportunity to practice much of this in my own life as I have, over the past couple of years or so, come to question and reject many positions that I held based upon tradition while not recognizing them as such. I have had the rather painful experience of discovering that I was holding a vareity of views based upon tradition while imagining them to be the only positions the Bible would allow.

I, therefore, realized that I must have been assuming that those who held to other positions where either knaves (who could not see what the Bible obviously taught) or dishonest (not willing to honestly admit what the Bible obviously teaches.) When I realized that my traditional positions on a number of issues mandated the inclusion of John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, etc., etc., etc. ad infinitum in this group of either knaves or liars, I began to wonder whether I ought to examine some of these teachings. Believe me, the examination of long-held, unexamined beliefs based upon tradition is a painful thing. It can make you feel like the entire theological world is moving beneath your feet.

But, better to experience a little pain and align one’s beliefs and practices with Scripture than to be afraid of the pain and thereby remain in disobedience.

Later in that same chapter, Robert Rayburn (the chapter’s author) continues his argument: “One can always defend tradition. One can always find a reason, if reasons are needed, to continue to do what we have always done. The question is not whether we can think of reasons for our traditional practice. The question is whether anyone with . . . a mind unprejudiced by the custom of centuries, would ever read the Bible and conclude that [insert tradition here.] I am a Reformed Christian. I want biblical authority for what I believe and for what I practice.” (17-18)

For a real reformation to occur in our time, we need many who are willing to reexamine their traditions–not to chuck them all and throw the baby out with the bath water–but rather to make them all answerable to Scripture. It may hurt for a while, but bringing our thinking and living into submission to God’s Word is worth it.