Posted by: Standing Solus Christus | February 16, 2008

Why Study Church History? (Lesson 1: Part 3)

Why Study Church History?  (Lesson 1: Part 3) 

In the midst of numerous debates and controversies that occurred during the ancient period of the church, a catholic tradition emerges and it was a good development.  The terminology “catholic” and “tradition” may be surprising to Christians of a protestant, evangelical or reformed background.  There are three different ways in which the word tradition is used summarized in the following: 

1.  In the first place tradition can be used to describe a given interpretation of the Bible.  For example, the reformed tradition reads the Bible a certain way that has consensus amongst many people.  This is what we mean by the word tradition, that there is a Christian consensus that was developed about many important things that the Bible teaches.  For example, a consensus is developed about the Trinity after a long period of study, reflection and debate.  This consensus is documented in the Nicene Creed, which is part of the catholic tradition.  This was a conclusion that was based upon the biblical teaching about the subject of the Trinity, which is a key distinction from the subsequent views.

2.  Secondarily, the term tradition can be used to support the claims that unwritten apostolic doctrines and practices existed, were passed down orally and remain binding on the church today.  This notion emerges in the ancient church period and it was used to defend the practices not explicitly recorded in the Bible (i.e. the sign of the cross).  This begins to establish an authority of tradition that is equivalent to the Bible in the life of the church.  The defenders of this notion would insist that this tradition is not in any sense contrary to the Bible, but supplemental to it. 

3.  The third notion of tradition emerges in the nineteenth century due to the great work and study that occurred by historical scholars.  The authority of holy tradition went virtually unchallenged until the time of the reformation.  The reformers pointed out inconsistencies between this “tradition” and the Bible.  An example that we could appeal to is the elevation of Mary as a co-mediator with Christ between God and man.  The Roman side asserted that traditions such as these were apostolic in nature being handed down through oral tradition.  However, thorough studies performed during the nineteenth century clearly identified how the assertion that these “traditions” were apostolic was indefensible.  This was especially manifest through the clear evidence that supported the ancient churches rejection of the use of images.  It was discovered that all of the ancient fathers for the first 350 years stood against the use of images.  This was problematic for the advocates of “holy tradition” who sought to justify the use of images based on upon it.   As a result, Cardinal Newman argued for and articulated the idea of the evolution of tradition.  Essentially, this argument indicated that there were seeds planted in the extrabiblical oral tradition that developed in later centuries.  Thus, the implicit idea of the blessedness of Mary later evolved in the development of her status as a mediator in later tradition.  A similar argument was made for the use of images.  John of Damascus argued that the whole man was saved, including his eyes, which would infer that holy images could be used without the risk of falling into idolatry.  This notion of an evolving or emerging apostolic tradition that the church creates is most explicitly manifested in Pope Leo’s statement from the tenth century “I am tradition.” 

Of these three examples, it would be difficult for us not to accept the legitimate use of the term tradition as articulated in example 1.  Although, many of the things categorized in example 2 are relatively benign we would take issue with the elevation of tradition to a comparable status as the Bible.  We would depart from the use of the term as indicated in example 3, which could lead to the support of almost anything deemed acceptable by the church.  

We should guard against the temptation to abandon the use of the term tradition in the acceptable way.  Otherwise, we may fall into the ladder-day saint syndrome throwing the baby out with the bath water and rejecting all tradition prior to 1500s (period of the reformation).  Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” if this is a reliable promise by our Lord then he has not had a church for the last five hundred years but the last two thousand years.  As we look at the first five hundred years of the church, we will find that it had failings and struggles.  However, we will also find that it had a great deal of success and victories.  And when we examine the similarities and identify the agreements that we possess with the early church fathers.  What we will find is that there is some connection and agreement between us and the ancient church.


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