the “t” word

At the urging of Kevin Burt, I’m posting a few thoughts on the early church, its theology and ecclesiology, and whether it should matter in our present-day theological calculus.

I want to start by defining a couple of things.  When I say “early church,” I’m speaking inclusively of the time between Jesus’ resurrection and, say, the middle of the fifth century (the Council of Chalcedon, AD 452, would be as good of a date as any).  Some might want to go slightly later, but I tend to think that the whole project would become less focused thereby.  If I need to specify further, I will do so by century (1st, 2nd, etc.)

With that aside, let’s begin by talking about an issue that has increasingly occupied my attention over the past few years: tradition.  In short, I think that it is extremely important.

Unfortunately, in NI cofCs (or in Churches of Christ, generally) our conversations about tradition have not been very healthy.  Our theological discourse includes a large dose of contempt for the “traditions of men.”  Our spiritual forefathers — the Campbells, Stone, Scott, etc. — saw tradition as a constricting and deadening force that greatly limited freedom and the ability to think independent of established structures.  There is a sense in which this is legitimate:  Jesus himself, in Mark 7, critiques the traditions of the Pharisees along roughly the same lines. 

But, too often, ministers and theologians in Churches of Christ have stopped there.  The problem with this is that the NT has more to say about tradition.  In the original language, for starters, tradition (paradosis) is simply that which is “handed over” or “handed down” or “handed on.”  Paul, in his letters, understands that he is “handing over” or “handing down” the message of the Gospel to others who will protect it and pass it on to those who come after them (cf. 1 Timothy 6.20; 2 Timothy 1.14; 1 Corinthians 15.3; Luke 1.1-2).  This is tradition in its simplest form, and for Paul there is no shame in this.  

Others have observed this phenomenon, i.e. that there are two ways of looking at tradition in the NT documents.  Jaroslav Pelikan, in a series of lectures entitled The Vindication of Tradition, has helpfully summarized these seemingly contradictory impulses by drawing a distinction between tradition and traditionalism.  He notes,

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”  

In other words, we must realize (1) that tradition is not a dirty word, that it’s not a bad thing in and of itself, (2) but, like anything else, it can be abused horribly, (3) and we have to remember to make a distinction between a right use of tradition (“tradition,” to use Pelikan’s term) and a wrong/unhealthy use of tradition (“traditionalism”).  Herein lies the rub for many in Churches of Christ (of whatever stripe).  Making these distinctions, respecting what has been handed down to us by our ancestors while not choking ourselves on it, is a difficult thing.  One poster here has very well pointed out that in Churches of Christ we tend to take the easy way out on a lot of issues.  I think this is one of them.  The proper (and faithful) appropriation of tradition is always more difficult than our simplistic rhetorical flourishes would lead us to believe.  


In order for us to have a fruitful conversation about tradition in NI Churches of Christ (or in any other kind of CofC) we have to first realize that we do, in fact, have a tradition.  I usually explain it this way: all of us were taught what we know about the Gospel by someone, be it our parents, grandparents, Sunday School teachers, preachers, guest preachers, whoever.  All of us, no matter what direction we may have gone later in life, are in their debt.  Further, all of those people were taught the Gospel by those who came before them.  Over the course of several generations now, in Churches of Christ, a tradition has formed and been handed down, not only about how one is reconciled to God, but also about other issues (such as instrumental music, eschatology, and more recently the work of the Church).  For the most part, we ourselves did not come up with those things ourselves; our ancestors, through careful study and dialogue/debate honed those understandings and handed them down to us.  Of course, we study those issues for ourselves, but we do so with the patterns of thinking and terminology bequeathed to us by our spiritual forefathers.

Our problem with this kind of talk lies in the fact that we assert that we have no tradition, that our history (or what our ancestors, or spiritual forefathers, did) has no bearing on our own faith.  In some sense that is a noble impulse: we want to study the Bible afresh and come to our own conclusions.  But it is also very unhealthy for a number of reasons.  I’ll mention two.

1) It blinds us to the fact that our beliefs and practices have specific historical origins.  First off, when I say “historical,” I do not mean to say that our beliefs are simply “man-made.”  Christianity, simply put, is a historical faith.  In other words, we believe that the facts of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15.1-11) are historical events, that they actually happened.

What I want to focus on, instead, are those things that make us a specific kind of Christian (“a Church of Christ Christian,” if you will).  As an example, I’ll use the Lord’s Supper.  Almost uniformly in the congos in which I grew up, I heard prayers that referred to the bread which “represents” the body of Christ.  We claim to be, above all, a Biblical people, but you can’t find that terminology in the Bible.  What does Jesus actually say?  The Lord himself, referring to the bread, says that it “is” his body.  What does that mean?  I don’t know, exactly.  But I do know that he doesn’t say that it “represents” his body.  I suppose, to take a cue from President Clinton, that it depends upon what the meaning of is is. 🙂  

But, if “represents” is not Biblical, why do we use it?  Well, historically speaking, we know where it comes from.  Ulrich Zwingli, in the early 16th century, in an effort to combat what he thought was an overwrought doctrine of transubstantion in the mediaeval Catholic Church, tried to find a new way to explain Jesus’ words.  “Representation” is what he came up with.  You might ask yourself, at this point, what’s the problem?  The problem is this: Zwingli’s view is based upon a Gnostic conceptualization of matter, i.e. spirit is good, the material world is evil and incapable of containing spiritual realities.  The early church declared Gnosticism to be a heresy.  Why?  Look at Genesis 1.  God declares his creation to be “good.”  Not just good, “very good” (Genesis 1.31).  He uses that creation to reveal himself, to reveal spiritual truth (think water, bread and “the fruit of the vine”).  The Gnostics denied that any of that had any value whatsoever.  Have any of you read the Gospel of Judas?  Early on in that text, the Gnostic Jesus laughs at his disciples as they observe the Lord’s Supper.  Why?  Because bread and wine are useless, in the Gnostic view.  Zwingli’s view is unnervingly similar to this.

So, what does this have to do with NI Churches of Christ?  Well, about 250 years after Zwingli’s time, Thomas and Alexander Campbell arrive on the scene.  In short, A. Campbell had major problems with the Zwinglian view of baptism that his Presbyterian forefathers adhered to (you can see this in, for instance, the Campbell-Walker debate from 1820).  The issues are too involved to go into here, but suffice it to say that Campbell comes to believe that the waters of baptism do carry some efficacy.  Why?  Certainly they don’t in and of themselves, but rather God is at work in baptism through his Spirit.  God chose water as the means whereby he would extend grace to those who sought him.     

But Campbell was inconsistent.  What Zwingli said about baptism (that it was merely a symbol with no real content, no salvific efficacy), he also said about the LS.  That is to say that Zwingli flatly denied that the bread and the fruit of the vine are used by God in any way whatsoever.  They were mere symbols that “represented” something else.  Why did Zwingli say this?  Again, he’s working from the Gnostic assumption that asserts that the material world is evil and denies the goodness of God’s creation.  Campbell doesn’t seem to have ever questioned Zwingli on this point.  As a result, his spiritual descendants (that’s us!) have never questioned what is so obviously an unbiblical, and really heretical, tradition that exists among us.  All because, to return to my original point, we don’t believe that the close study of history is worth our time because we don’t believe that it affects us or has any bearing on what we believe as Christians. 

2) It blinds us to the fact that many of our beliefs have changed over the years (often, this occurs even as we assert that we have always taught and believed the same thing).   

I’m going to save that second point for later (this afternoon, hopefully).  This post is already long enough.



One response to “the “t” word

  1. Good post. You would think that if you’re going to just go by the Bible, then one would say “This is My Body” at the Lord’s Supper.

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