In my last post we looked at the first of the four quadrants of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Scripture. We saw there an unavoidable paradox: Scripture is primary among the four quadrants, but it is never accessed in isolation from the other three, tradition, reason, and experience.
In other words, one always sees Scripture through the lenses of our traditions, our ability to reason, and our experiences as human beings. One of the great strengths of Wesleyanism is in being forthright about the interconnection of these four factors.
Today we will look at the role of tradition in the Quadrilateral.
“Tradition” refers to beliefs and practices transmitted over time among a particular group that selects to engage those transmitted beliefs and practices. The word can sometimes come across as a “take it or leave it” proposition, such as when people say “That’s just tradition.” The truth, however, is that tradition refers to the inevitable manner in which beliefs and practices continue to survive from generation to generation. Traditions are communicated through language (oral or written) and through practices (which are also typically communicated verbally on some level). We are human beings, and the passing on of how we think and act is “tradition.”
We have traditions about all sorts of things like how or when to decorate the Christmas tree, whom to visit Christmas morning, what sports team we follow, etc. But, for our purposes, we are obviously focusing on religious tradition—or if you will, theological tradition, where sets of beliefs and practices about God and ultimate meaning are articulated and passed on.
As I see it, “tradition” in Wesleyan theology refers to two distinct but interconnected notions:
(1) The Christian tradition understood in its most basic and broadest sense. Christianity is the grand tradition of the faith, and all others are attempts to articulate that grand tradition faithfully and contextually. For many the grand tradition is captured in the ancient creeds of the church, Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.
(2) The various and diverse ways in which the Christian tradition has been articulated throughout its history. This sense of tradition refers to the “subsets” of Christianity—Calvinist, Wesleyan, Roman Catholic, etc. Each of these subsets has fairly well defined histories and parameters (even if there is movement and dialogue among adherents within these traditions).
Tradition, in other words, refers to the how Christians have articulated the gospel throughout history, both broadly to include Christianity as a whole and narrowly to include particular expressions of Christianity at various times and places.
Tradition as Broad, Ecumenical, Dialogical, and Spirit Driven
By making tradition one quadrant of the Quadrilateral, Wesleyan theology acknowledges that attaining theological knowledge obligates Christians to revisit the thinking of the church as broadly as possible. Christian thought in all its breadth and diversity is an asset for contemporary theological thinking, not a hindrance or an unfortunate circumstance to be corrected.
Embracing tradition in all its fullness will encourage an ecumenical and dialogical approach to gaining theological knowledge. The focus shifts from protecting theological territory for its own sake to exploring theological avenues as each generation of the church seeks to learn from the tradition while engaging that tradition in modern contexts.
In my opinion, this is precisely what needs to happen more and more in the science/faith discussion. Seeing ourselves as part of tradition, broadly and narrowly considered, and seeing one’s obligation to tradition as an active engagement with the past for present benefit is vital to the kind of theological work necessary to bring science and faith into meaningful conversation.
One can see this attitude in the renewed interest of the last generation or so of Evangelicals exploring such great influences of the history of Christianity as the Early Church Fathers or medieval Christianity. (Among others, I am thinking here of the influential writings of the late theologian Robert E. Webber, such as Ancient-Future Faith, Ancient-Future Worship, Ancient-Future Evangelism.) This attitude reflects an enthusiastic recognition that we can all learn from the voices of the past, not simply to confirm what we might believe to be true, but with a view toward adjusting our own convictions of the Christian faith.
One might take this a step further. An attitude of broad ecumenical respect for various traditions is a show of respect and thankfulness to the Spirit of God in promoting the “diachronic” and “synchronic” diversity in the church.
Throughout the ages (diachronic) and at any one time in the history of the church (synchronic), Christians have been of different minds on a number of important issues. To say so is to state the obvious. I do not mean to suggest that everything that people claming to be Christians have said at any time is part of the grand tradition—Christianity has boundaries, and one can be outside of those boundaries, a point that I don’t feel needs to be belabored here.
My point is that there has been and continues to be legitimate diversity in the Christian tradition. Unless we wish to think of the Christian tradition as one unfortunate slide into “impurity” after another, we have no choice but to see that diversity as something that pleases God—perhaps something he actually rejoices in.
Keeping this in mind will guard against enforced synchronic unanimity among Christians (the worst expressions being inquisitions and the like) or artificial diachronic unanimity, where we mute the varied voices of the past that disagree with our own. In fact, imposed unanimity might even be thought of as heretical, for it implies that the Spirit of God has not done a very good job of insuring the purity of his message. Cults and some Christian traditions are in fact rooted in just such a notion: “God’s truth is getting watered down and it is up to us to put a stop to it.”
Again, I am not suggesting that “anything goes,” but clearly it is the case in God’s wisdom that “many things go.”
The diversity of the Christian tradition, broadly and narrowly considered, reflects the fact that traditions are born by human beings, living in particular movements and times. This quadrant of the Quadrilateral reminds us all that traditions have an unmistakable fluidity—they are works in progress. This is a good thing to remember when the topic turns to science and faith, when too often the impulse is to “protect” tradition rather than dialogue with it.