For I am the Lord God, I change not. Malachi 3:6
For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night. Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep: in the morning they are like grass which groweth up. In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. Psalm 90:4-6
God is the unchanging Creator. Man is the changing creature. These are two fundamental Biblical facts we dare never forget, and we must work to grasp the proper relation between them.
Many ancient Greek philosophers feared and despised the change inherent in the human condition. In fact, one reason Plato reveled in death is that he believed that it emancipated man from the tyranny of change.1 The "Ideas" or "Forms," immediately accessible to the human mind just as physical objects are, were defined as the heavenly, eternal, immutable patterns of which earthly phenomena are simply flawed, mutable shadows. The objective was to bring the earthly shadows as closely as possible into conformity to the heavenly ideas, though this could never be accomplished fully in man's earthly existence.
In bold contrast to this pagan idea, the Bible asserts that God alone is unchanging and that change as an aspect of the human condition is (in many cases) God's requirement for man. It is clear, for example, that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve would have grown in godly maturity, knowledge, and ethics (i.e., they would have changed) had they not sinned by eating the forbidden fruit. They would have been sinless, yet they would have changed and, perhaps, could not have remained sinless had they been unwilling to change: unchangeableness would have meant sinfulness.
The Bible declares that Jesus Christ "learned obedience by the things which He suffered" (Heb. 5:8). Yet Jesus, fully human, was nonetheless sinless. A (potentially) sinless Adam and an (actually) sinless Second Adam, Jesus Christ, prove that change is not incompatible with sinlessness. The notion that change in man is an inherent defect is not a Christian teaching. Change, in fact, is no more incompatible with sinlessness than immutability is incompatible with sin. Genesis 6 relates that the antediluvians were immutably committed to sin in their imagination (v. 5). It was precisely their unwillingness to change that secured their judgment.
Yet not all change is godly. Much change is evil. In the Old Testament, the idolatrous change introduced into Israel's God-given liturgy of worship elicited God's severe judgment. In the New Testament, Jude warns of ungodly men creeping into the church unawares, who pollute and spoil the pure faith delivered once for all to the saints. Similarly, Paul reprimands the Galatians, who were vexed by false teachers undermining the glorious Old Testament doctrine of justification by faith: "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel" (Gal. 1:6). Paul had established those churches in the proper conception of salvation, but they were surrendering to damnable innovations, which seduced them away from the gospel. Change that deviates from godly truth is evil indeed.
On the other hand, we must never presume that all continuity is holy. The Bible as forcefully opposes ungodly continuity as it does ungodly change. Our Lord Himself rebuked the Pharisees and other "conservative" Jews for refusing to abandon traditions which broke with the truth of the Old Testament (Mt. 15:2-6; Mk. 7:3-13). Jesus was arguing for a Biblical progressivism, as opposed to an unholy conservatism. In the Old Testament, when his servants rediscovered the law of the Lord, the godly King Josiah ruptured the sinful, idolatrous continuity that had developed in Israel. By this divine law he subsequently reordered the life of God's people (2 Kin. 22-23:25). Forward into the New Testament era, we learn that Paul chided an early church for refusing to relinquish false traditions, which undermined the Faith (Col. 2:8).
Clearly, both change and continuity can be evil.
And both can be holy. Pelikan suggests that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, while tradition is the living faith of the dead.2 His point is not merely that traditional Christian faith does and should persist over time, but that the fact that it has existed within the church for a long period of time may dispose us to give it the benefit of the doubt as a legitimate dogma. A prime example is early Trinitarian orthodoxy, solidified at the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325). The formulation and language describing God as one God, yet in three ontologically co-equal Persons, is not, strictly speaking, found in the Bible. However, the teachings that lead to this orthodox language surely are found in the Bible; and this is why we Christians embrace them. Now it is conceivable that Christians in the third and fourth centuries could have employed alternative terminology to describe this great Biblical mystery; but, if they wished to remain true to the Bible, they could not have come up with something substantively different from what they did in fact devise.3 The orthodox formulation of the Trinity is a tradition, but it is a godly tradition, one summarizing the Biblical teaching concerning the Personhood of God.4
Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to "hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thes. 2:15). Obviously, he refers to godly traditions, not ungodly ones. Similarly, we today are to preserve and perpetuate holy traditions like the orthodox Trinitarianism mentioned above, and orthodox Christology (the Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 425) that have been delivered to us. This is holy continuity.
But there is holy discontinuity, or change, also. In this issue of the Chalcedon Report, John Frame, one of the leading Reformed thinkers of our era, criticizes "traditionalism." He reminds us that as Protestants we are committed to sola Scriptura the Bible alone is our final revelational authority. If we can be shown to have maintained inherited traditions that deviate from the Bible, we are under compulsion to abandon those traditions and embrace Biblical teaching. This argument is easy to make and accept when we are disputing with Roman Catholics, who traditionally [!] have set the church's teachings on a par with the Bible itself (the Council of Trent did this quite explicitly). Protestants themselves, however, often become anxious and uncomfortable when Frame and others shine the light of God's Word on their own traditions which sorely lack Biblical justification. Yet Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy do not own a monopoly on unbiblical traditionalism.
Tradition of some kind, of course, is inescapable. In fact, anti-traditionalism itself becomes a tradition. Prime examples include some of today's Pentecostal and charismatic churches, which rose partly in protest over the supposedly cold, traditional, and therefore Spirit-quenching, liturgy of conservative and mainline churches. Yet the anti-traditional liturgy of many of the newer churches seems to repeat itself every Sunday morning during worship! These anti-traditional churches have created their own tradition. This is not of itself a criticism of these churches, simply a suggestion of evidence that tradition of some kind is inescapable.
The issue is not, consequently, whether there will be a tradition. The question is whether it will be a tradition in line with the Bible. If it conforms to the norms of Scripture, that tradition is justified, even if it varies somewhat from other legitimate traditions in other words, conflicting traditions may not on that ground alone be illegitimate. After all, the Bible at some points gives wide latitude to church traditions (Acts 15), demanding not that they be uniform with each other in every particular, but only that they not violate God's standard for man as set forth in the Bible. Every church, every denomination, every Christian organization preserves some traditions, just as every one introduces change into those traditions. Holy tradition, in fact, is not the presence of an absolutely unchanging pattern. If it were, it would not be a holy tradition; it would be God Himself, for He alone is absolutely unchanging. Rather, holy tradition is godly change within godly continuity. The objective is to retain what is Biblical and holy while changing and improving on that which is less than Biblical and holy.
Growth, Maturity, and Change
Years ago I heard an aged minister say, "I have not changed one of my beliefs in fifty years." That man, I believe, was either an ignoramus or a liar. He either did, in fact, change some of his beliefs while refusing to admit this change, or else he refused to change any beliefs and remained a spiritual and intellectual child. (Then again, perhaps he simply wasn't thinking well when he spoke!) Again and again the Bible exhorts us to spiritual growth (e.g., 2 Pet. 3:18), a growth analogous to physical growth (Heb. 5:1; 1 Cor. 3:1-2). Just as God made Adam fully adult, though not a fully developed man, so when He regenerates us, He does not make us mature Christians. He sanctifies us, and this sanctification is a process.
Precisely because God and His Word are alone unchangeable, man must always be changing or at least ready to change. The doctrine of perfection, the idea that man can arrive at a state of sinless perfection in this life, is an assault on Biblical truth. So is the notion that the Christian can reach the place of immutable maturity in this life. God's call to Christians is to learn and then progress beyond the basic elements of the Faith (Heb. 6:1ff.). We are surely not called to abandon basic, fundamental Christian truth, but rather to build upon it a greater structure. Over time, Christians should know more of God and His Word and holy experience.
What is true of the individual Christian is equally true of the wider church. Not only should an individual church or denomination grow in grace; Christ's church over time should grow and change. This, in fact, is precisely what has happened.5 Just as God brings tribulations and difficulties into the life of the individual believer to force him to greater maturity, so He brings controversy into the life of the church to force it to a greater examination of the Word of God in formulating its beliefs and practices. The patristic church, for example, did not enjoy a decisive grasp of the doctrine of original sin and of salvation by grace, but the Pelagian controversy elicited from Augustine an intensive examination and explication of the Word of God on these two themes.6 The Western church has far outstripped the Eastern Church in these teachings because the latter wants to glorify in nothing beyond patristic orthodoxy.7 That is to say, it wants to glory in theological immaturity. It is less accurate to say that the Eastern wing of the church of the first few centuries was evil rather than immature than to say that it is evil today because it refuses to recognize the legitimate growth and change within the Western church. We expect children to be children, but we are rightly troubled when we see adults thinking and acting like children (1 Cor. 13:11).
A subtle danger often plagues Bible-believing Christians and churches in their creditable conflict with theological liberalism and modernism. The latter are committed to ungodly change: reshaping the Biblical and historic Faith to fit the exigencies and assumptions of the modern world.8 For nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberals, it was impossible to expect for man to accept the miracles set forth in the Bible, for example. The orthodox response was surely correct in standing uncompromisingly on the truth of the Bible. Often, however, this stand was an equally uncompromising stand on the immutability of a particular theological situation, for instance, the sixteenth-century Augsburg Confession or English Settlement, the seventeenth-century Westminster Confession of Faith, and so on. It is surely right to enlist confessional standards and creeds (which are, in any case, inescapable) but misguided to suppose that all of the controversies of the present can be met with the instruments of the past. In the case of its apologia for the miraculous in the face of modernistic denials, the problem with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century orthodox was their attempt to validate miracles by the same rational "scientific" methodology liberals themselves championed.9 In today's postmodern world, this whole debate seems rather embarrassing, since unbelievers today are generally inclined to accept the existence of the miraculous, just not the existence of the God of the miraculous. Fighting today's battles with yesterday's instruments is a chief flaw of defenders of orthodoxy who are not equally defenders of godly change.
Our dispute with theological liberals and other Bible-deniers is not a dispute between those who affirm an unchangeable theology against those who affirm a changeable theology, but between those who believe that theology must change in a more Biblical direction against those who believe it must change in a more worldly direction. The issue is not whether one should be relevant and the other irrelevant, as though only liberals are concerned with relevance. The question is, "What constitutes relevance?" Liberals believe that a relevant theology and practice is one made conformable to the dictates of the contemporary world. The orthodox, on the other hand, believe that a relevant theology and practice is one which the dictates of the contemporary world has forced godly Christians to create by pressing them to greater conformity to the Bible. By its very nature, the human condition (under God's command) demands mutability. The only real issue is whether that mutability will progress toward greater sin or greater godliness.
The fear of change is really the fear of our creaturely condition. One writer shrewdly observes that there is a tendency on the part of old men to see the world as dying with themselves. They are becoming old, decrepit, and feeble and, thus, the world itself is passing away. This, of course, is simply not true. I am reminded of the truth of the sign in the maternity ward where all five of my children were born: "Babies are proof of God's intent that life should go on." A line of thinking, a cause, or progress in general that seems to stumble with the death of a single generation can always be picked up and championed by succeeding generations. This is or should be the great confidence of the elderly, particularly the godly elderly God buries His workers, but not His work.
And this work requires both continuity and discontinuity with the past as we work toward greater conformity to the Bible.
1. Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 1.
2. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 65.
3. J. Burnaby, "Bible and Dogma," in On the Authority of the Bible (London: SPCK, 1960), 43 (no editor).
4. Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker , 1994), 140-151.
5. Peter Toon, The Development of Doctrine in the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979).
6. Louis Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust , 1969), 131-139.
7. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 8-30.
8. Donald E. Miller, The Case for Liberal Theology (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981), 33-34.
9. W. Neil, "The Criticism and Theological Use of the Bible," ed., S. L. Greenslade, The Cambridge History of the Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 3:239-244.