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Tradition Versus Traditionalism

For a class I’m taking, we are reading Jaroslav Pelikan’s book The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. My professor asked me to select a passage from this week’s reading and respond to it. Here’s what I turned in:

My passage:

“To validate its existence, the church looked increasingly not to the future, illumined by the Lord’s return, nor to the present, illumined by the Spirit’s extraordinary gifts, but to the past, illumined by the composition of the apos­tolic canon, the creation of the apostolic creed, and the establishment of the apostolic episcopate. To meet the test of apostolic orthodoxy, a movement or idea had to measure up to these norms.”

(P. 107; The New Prophecy)

Before I begin, I’d like to supply an additional passage taken from earlier in the first reading with an additional clarification from the author later:

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.

(p.9 and “Writings and Interviews: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaroslav_Pelikan)

With the apparent delay of the Parousia of Christ and the (perceived) diminishing of the charismata, the church began to look to creeds, traditions, and the apostolic authority of the church as its basis of unity. The church latched onto these human-created documents and traditions in order to maintain some sort of status-quo, especially in light of the various “heresies” that had popped up in the second and third centuries (see pages 68-69 for a great definition of “heretic”). But, as Pelikan elaborates in the quote above, there was no such thing as a “unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.” Thus, the very foundation upon which “orthodoxy” is built is filled with cracks and faults that have only led to unnecessary division, violence against dissenters, and all sorts of religious confusion. 

This passage resonates with me because in our mutual heritage in the Stone-Campbell movement, many of our preachers have stressed “No Creed but Christ.” They saw that such standards of unity only lead to more division. Unfortunately, creeds, apostolic orthodoxy, and the so-called authority of the church have taken shape in the form of preaching schools, publications, and “celebrity” preachers. Many of our divisions have come about because of personalities and difference of opinion when we should be able to unite in our shared faith in Jesus. Reading the history of the church and the development of doctrine has really shined a light on what has happened in our own movement.

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