By Larry Duggins
Thoughts on Our Theological Task #8
The theological task does not start anew in each age or each person. Christianity does not leap from New Testament times to the present as though nothing were to be learned from that great cloud of witnesses in between. For centuries Christians have sought to interpret the truth of the gospel for their time. In these attempts, tradition, understood both in terms of process and form, has played an important role. The passing on and receiving of the gospel among persons, regions, and generations constitutes a dynamic element of Christian history. The formulations and practices that grew out of specific circumstances constitute the legacy of the corporate experience of earlier Christian communities. These traditions are found in many cultures around the globe. But the history of Christianity includes a mixture of ignorance, misguided zeal, and sin. Scripture remains the norm by which all traditions are judged. The story of the church reflects the most basic sense of tradition, the continuing activity of God’s Spirit transforming human life. Tradition is the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christians live, God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ. As such, tradition transcends the story of particular traditions. In this deeper sense of tradition, all Christians share a common history. Within that history, Christian tradition precedes Scripture, and yet Scripture comes to be the focal expression of the tradition. As United Methodists, we pursue our theological task in openness to the richness of both the form and power of tradition. The multiplicity of traditions furnishes a richly varied source for theological reflection and construction. For United Methodists, certain strands of tradition have special importance as the historic foundation of our doctrinal heritage and the distinctive expressions of our communal existence. We are now challenged by traditions from around the world that accent dimensions of Christian understanding that grow out of the sufferings and victories of the downtrodden. These traditions help us rediscover the biblical witness to God’s special commitment to the poor, the disabled, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the outcast. In these persons we encounter the living presence of Jesus Christ. These traditions underscore the equality of all persons in Jesus Christ. They display the capacity of the gospel to free us to embrace the diversity of human cultures and appreciate their values. They reinforce our traditional understanding of the inseparability of personal salvation and social justice. They deepen our commitment to global peace. A critical appreciation of these traditions can compel us to think about God in new ways, enlarge our vision of shalom, and enhance our confidence in God’s provident love. Tradition acts as a measure of validity and propriety for a community’s faith insofar as it represents a consensus of faith. The various traditions that presently make claims upon us may contain conflicting images and insights of truth and validity. We examine such conflicts in light of Scripture, reflecting critically upon the doctrinal stance of our Church. It is by the discerning use of our standards and in openness to emerging forms of Christian identity that we attempt to maintain fidelity to the apostolic faith. At the same time, we continue to draw on the broader Christian tradition as an expression of the history of divine grace within which Christians are able to recognize and welcome one another in love."
― from "The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016"
My favorite part of the paragraph on Tradition is the explicit recognition that sometimes we get it wrong. We work with the struggles and conclusions of those who have gone before us, fully acknowledging that, on occasion, they were wrong. That stance is grace-filled and reminds us that imperfections do not render a treasure valueless.
We use tradition to help us evaluate scripture, while using scripture to expose the flaws in tradition. Examining the theological struggles of those who have gone before helps us to refine both our understanding of scripture and the process of reaching understandings about scripture. When tradition proves to be imperfect, scripture refines it. As with traditions relating to the role of women or the keeping of slaves, what was an accepted theological stance in the past is shaped by God’s grace in scripture into a new stance in the present.
Engaging tradition from different sources can also be quite helpful. The Discipline reflects the currents of the time of its writing by pointing out the impact of Liberation theology on the awareness of the church as a whole. By engaging traditions across geographic and cultural boundaries, the theological stance of the denomination was reformed. The text actually expresses this concept as underscoring “the equality of all persons in Jesus Christ.” There is guidance here for us all as we struggle to reconcile the Tradition of different regions and cultures into a stance that recognizes the equality of all in Christ.
I am struck by the tension in this paragraph between traditions that have been wrong, narrow-minded, or misguided and “the broader Christian tradition as an expression of the history of divine grace within which Christians are able to recognize and welcome one another in love." As we work with the issues underlying #GC2019, both factions need to hold this realization firmly. Our past teaches us that there have been firmly held, fervently believed traditions that have been wrong, only to be ultimately refined by scripture and the broader Christian tradition that welcomes one another in love.