Last week I posted a question by a reader asking about categories of biblical literature and their “wooden historicity”. There was another aspect to the comment though, and another question well worth consideration.
The original comment continued…
Speaking of that RJS, this reminds me of something that you’ve said before in response to my question on why you believe a certain thing to be the case. Your response, on occasion, has been to say that this is what has been handed down in Christian tradition, from the early church on. But, following our discussion here, surely the early church and much of Christian tradition thought the weather was directly, and in real-time, controlled by God. So if we so easily question that assumption now, why not others? The tradition argument alone seems rather weak in that regard.
This leads to the question for today.
What role does tradition play in our interpretation of scripture and understanding of the faith?
(The picture above is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the traditional site of the crucifixion and burial. We visited fall 2001 – when the lines were rather short.)
The commenter is quite right – there are some doctrines that I hold primarily on the strength of church tradition. The virgin birth is a good example. This is the teaching of the church from the beginning and I hold this doctrine primarily on the strength of that tradition.
But it is also true that a historical view of Genesis 1-11 is the traditional view of the church. The early church fathers, who often added allegorical or typological meaning on top of the literal meaning, generally took the historical meaning at face value. Even the apostle Paul appears to take the historical meaning at face value. Yet here I distrust the wisdom of church tradition. The evidence for old earth and evolution, the absence of evidence for a global flood, the evidence against a “Tower of Babel” dispersion of language, is so overwhelming that I simply cannot take a face value approach.
There are other examples we could consider as well – and Matthew 16:18-19 is a good case, where Jesus says to Simon Peter:
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
Traditionally this has been interpreted to establish the authority of the church in all matters including those of salvation and remission of sins. The Epistles of Cyprian, written ca. 250 AD are a particularly clear example of the antiquity of this tradition. Protestants blatantly disregard the traditional interpretation and have, from our perspective of a few centuries, established a new tradition.
In light of these considerations we are back to the question for today, which I’ll phrase just a little differently.
When is tradition authoritative – and when is tradition merely a guide to be considered and respected, but at times overruled in the face of additional insight and information?
How do we know?
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