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.


(I’m exaggerating, of course – there’s a lot more nuance to the Reformation reception of the intervening period, but you get my point.)

This view of things seemed deeply impoverished to me. What about everything between Paul and Luther? The ease with which the Reformation could dismiss this whole tradition seemed disconcerting, and, frankly, bizarre.

I was instead attracted to the idea of continuity of tradition: of the importance of being in a trajectory of historical belief and practice where the church’s memory was fully intact. It was critical for me to be in contact with the wealth and richness of the century-by-century experience of Christians – with the long conversation or meditation on the faith that has taken place in so many circumstances, with so many people. This seemed like a much more plausible, “safe”, and reasonable way of doing theology. Certainly it seemed very strange to privilege one or two 16th C figures over such a huge “cloud of witnesses” – especially when no one I knew seemed to know that much about what had gone on before 1500.

Today, I still think this way, at least in part. I still think engagement with the full scope of Christian experience, geographically and through time, is important. This is especially true for theologians and church leaders, who, increasingly I think, must have a sound sense of the whole.

Nevertheless, I’ve come to realize that there is a lot more to the Reformation view of the world than I had earlier perceived. When Luther and Melanchthon and others like them said that, in effect, they could look back over the centuries between Paul and themselves and hardly find anyone in the classical patristic and medieval tradition that preached the Good News in a clear, definite and forthright manner – well, as implausible as this may sound, I think there is a way in which they were right.

Over the next few posts I’m going to tell you why I think this is true.

Part I: Not so Implausible

First of all, the “historical implausibility” arguments are a lot weaker than they appear.

At first glance, the thirteen centuries between 200 AD, when the “Great Church” tradition begins to coalesce in a clear way, and 1500 AD, the dawn of the Reformation, does seem like an impressive amount of time. It’s certainly a big chunk of Christian history. Blanket statements dismissing this whole period are pretty hard to swallow.

But let’s consider two things.

First, thirteen centuries seems like a very long time today. But what about in 5000 years? Or 10 000? I know the argument seems silly at first, but it helps to get some perspective. Is it really so hard to believe that at 10 000 AD we might not look back at these thirteen centuries (out of a hundred!) and consider them a Greco-Roman blip in Christian history? A period when Christianity, under pressure for its very survival, accommodated itself to the surrounding Greco-Roman cultural milieu to such an extent that the Gospel really was obscured or dimmed? I suspect this will be very easy to imagine – even obvious. And will it be in any way difficult to argue that these centuries should not be regarded as particularly definitive for Christianity?

Second, and more importantly, how varied and and diverse was the tradition during those thirteen centuries? It’s very easy to overestimate this. By modern standards, the Greco-Roman synthesis that dominanted this period was in fact extraordinarily univocal and static. You can summarize its substance in about six points:

  • Christian belief is essentially about gaining true knowledge about God (and Jesus tends to become first and foremost a communicator or mediator of this knowledge)
  • Scripture is understood as itself the fundamental revelation of God – a kind of sacred text – and Christianity is consequently understood as a huge exercise in exegesis of this divine text
  • salvation is conceived as a gradual transformation and training of the human soul/person, and usually as a kind of cooperative effort between humans and God
  • the world is the natural and necessary object of Christians’ transformative work – i.e. the world/state/family is to be transformed into a foretaste of the kingdom to come, and the kingdom is, as much as possible, to be realized now
  • as a result of the last two points, Christianity is overwhelmingly conceived as an exercise in moral/ethical improvement: it provides the commandments, techniques and imperatives for a holy “way of life”, for the individual, the family, society, the state, the world
  • the church, as the instrument and vessel of this divine transformation, legitimately exercises a significant, even coercive, authority, power, and control in the social and cultural realms, and (therefore) maintains a concrete, unified, institutional presence

True, there are several major variants of this synthesis. There is an Augustinian version, an eastern/Greek patristic version, a Syriac version, a medieval scholastic version, and at least a few monastic/ascetic versions. Later, Calvinism and some forms of Anabaptism will represent yet others. But the central pillars of belief are pretty much the same. Only here and there can we detect hints of truly different voices – but mostly these end up labelled as “heresy”, and we know little about them.

The homogeneity of this period is important to identify because it means that Luther was not contending against a huge, rich, variegated tradition, as is often imagined. He was contending against one, rather narrow vision of Christianity, and one that was very much the “cultural Christianity” of the ancient near-eastern world (the above points are all pretty much a Christianized Hellenism). So for him to say, “Gee, I’m not so sure if this one received take on Christianity, which frankly I find a bit pagan, should be understood as definitive of all truth…” is probably a bit more reasonable than it first sounds.

Further, we need to remember that this tradition was in many ways untried throughout these thirteen centuries. Today it’s easy to romanticize this synthesis as a great crucible of doctrine in which alternative visions of Christianity were tested and refined in a long, slow process of purification. But this is pretty much bunk. Because this vision of Christianity was established as the state-sponsored, legally enforceable vision of basically all late Roman and medieval polities – and because it followed so naturally from ancient Greco-Roman philosophical patterns, which themselves changed very little during this time – it was virtually impossible for countervailing voices to emerge. What disputes we do find are very much internal to this synthesis – i.e., not challenges from the outside, questioning fundamental assumptions. In fact, I would venture that until Luther, it’s very difficult to hear in the sources any serious, fundamental critique of this Greco-Roman synthesis as a whole. But given the cultural resources of this period, it was probably very difficult for anyone to imagine something different. And, again, the few exceptions mostly seem to have ended up in the “heresy” camp, or very nearly so (e.g. maybe the western mystics, or the early Franciscans).

So, overwhelmingly, after about 300 AD, this massive, dominant, mostly univocal tradition, was really never challenged — and particularly never on that most basic and critical level: does this synthesis faithfully convey the Gospel? But that is the question Luther posed.

So while one may still disagree with Luther, I don’t think we should prima facie dismiss his questioning of this ancient Greco-Roman synthesis as radically implausible or bizarre. Yes, Luther is challenging a very old, and very widespread synthesis, but it’s still only one vision of Christianity, a very narrow and culturally-conditioned one, and one that was almost never challenged in its core assumptions. Given these factors, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising,when Luther and others finally engaged in a root and branch assessment of the received tradition, that they found many things wanting.

To be continued… Part Two: The Problems with Doing Theology Traditionally

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