“Tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”- Jaroslav Pelikan
The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600).
My hometown of Augusta, GA is renown for the annual golf tournament The Masters. Golf is central to the identity and culture of our city. In college, I had the great opportunity to work as a driver for a world-famous company during the 1997 Masters. That week I met numerous celebrities and had an up close and personal experience of the lifestyle and traditions of golfʼs greatest. These golf traditions are expressed in many
ways: players exhibit pre-game rituals, spectators observe golf “liturgy” as they approach the hallowed ground of the Augusta National, and the world watches on as the champion is praised by the offering of the coveted green jacket (despite the unforgiving Georgia heat). For many, golf is a tradition. For some it is a religion.
Everyone Has Tradition
Part of contextualizing the gospel involves recognizing the traditions of that culture, discerning what is redeemable, and what is an idol. The South, for instance, is rich in history and tradition, yet in many ways remains under-gospeled. Pastors and church planters are typically wide-eyed and ambitious, seeking to build new expressions of gospel faith in culture. The simple fact is that the moment something is done more than once, a tradition has been established.
Tradition is good in so much that it points to Christ and connects with the saints of history. We must ask: what traditions are we establishing and upholding?
Preserving the Non-Essentials
In Mark 7 we see the Pharisees approaching Jesus with questions regarding certain traditions. It soon becomes evident that the issue is not tradition, but traditionalism. The Pharisees are observing “the tradition of the elders” (7:3, 5) and “many other traditions” (7:4). The root of their observances are traditions of men rather than commands of God. Their oral law had become equivalent in authority to the written law. In so doing, the Pharisees were promoting cultural traditionalism at the expense of
extending the gift of Godʼs word. Traditionalism is an idol that replaces Christ and isolates from the saints of the past.
Missing the Gospel
Jesus is quick to shift the focus from the human authority of traditionalism back to the commands of God revealed in Scripture, of which Jesus himself exhibits authority over. Quoting the prophet Isaiah (7:6-7), Jesus states with authority, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (7:8). He later charges that their traditionalism makes void the word of God (7:13). Traditionalism is a very affront to God by placing obstacles for true communion with God, while missing the good news that tradition intends to display.
Historical theology gives us an understanding to the gospel-centrality of certain traditions that should be established and upheld, not neglected. Tradition should not be ignored, but infused with the gospel. Traditionalism should not be tolerated, but confronted with the gospel.