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The Dangers of Traditional Theology (The Problem with Tradition Part Two)

About the Author
David Wagschal

(“So Wrong for So Long?” Part 2)

For many of my friends, especially from the Catholic, Anglican, or Orthodox churches (sometimes Lutheran too), the weight of tradition is a powerful argument in the controversy over homosexuality – or, for that matter, in any theological or ethical debate. For them, to do theology necessarily entails a reverent engagement with the sum total of the church’s experience. Often tradition is accorded a near-absolute authority. At the very least, the weight of tradition acts as a powerful break on any change or innovation.

As I noted last post, I’m sympathetic to this vision. At its best, it represents an openness to wisdom and experiences beyond our own place and time. It is a deferential way of doing theology that emphasizes the importance of dialogue with the past, and demands a humility about our own, modern opinions. It also counters the notion of theology as simply an exercise in philosophical ratiocination or pure Biblical exegesis.

I’ve nevertheless become increasingly aware of the weakness and dangers of doing theology this way. These are not well recognized today. In fact, I think they’ve rarely even been identified.

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So Wrong for So Long? (The Problem with Tradition Part One)

About the Author
David Wagschal

“David, can the church really have gotten it wrong for so long? You claim that the church has made some pretty big missteps, not only on the homosexuality issue, but on the nature of scripture, the church, even the Gospel itself. Doesn’t that really strain the limits of credibility? Really, for almost two millennia the church has, well, blown it?”

This is among the most common objections I hear, especially from friends of churches which identify closely with the traditional Greco-Roman or “imperial” synthesis (Catholic, Orthodox, traditional Anglicans, etc). It’s the tradition question: can we not rely, at least to some extent, on received tradition – on the sheer weight of now almost twenty centuries of consensus and usage – as a criterion of truth? Should not this tradition be authoritative for Christians?

A Good Objection

Gotta say that I am very sympathetic to this objection. It was the key reason why, in my late teens, I left a mainstream Protestant church to join a more traditional church. I could never get my head around the sheer historical implausibility of the Reformation view of the world: first there was Jesus, then Paul – then darkness – then the Reformation.

Really?

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