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The Place of Tradition

By Timothy D. Terrell
September 25, 2013

Reformed believers will sometimes remind each other that the task of reforming the church did not end with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and the rest of the "Reformers." We say, "ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda," the church reformed, always being reformed, to become more obedient to the Word of God as the church grows and matures.

Michael Horton points out that the semper reformanda phrase can be traced back to the Reformed Dutch writer Jodocus van Lodenstein, who wrote, "The church is reformed and always [in need of] being reformed according to the Word of God." Horton points out that this is not an active verb, but a passive one: the church is "'always being reformed' by the Spirit of God through the Word."1 The semper reformanda principle pulls us toward the Word of God, correcting errors that may have crept in, or unbiblical traditions that have not yet been rooted out.

Tradition reflects the collective wisdom-or folly-of the past. There are those who see it generally as a valuable social inheritance, and those who see it as a barrier to progress. Left-liberalism, whether theological or political, tends to see tradition as worse than useless-a slavery to the past. Conservatism is characterized by a high regard for the traditions of history, for established procedure, for the wisdom of elders, for the original meaning of authors, for original intent, and for creeds and confessions.

While Christians should be ready and willing to discard traditions that are demonstrably unbiblical, there is a difference between scrapping a practice that is out of accord with the Bible and scrapping a practice that has no obvious Biblical mandate. Too often, families and churches have been willing to discard traditional practices that they do not understand.

Traditional Worship

The modern churchgoer, claiming a desire for Biblical worship, and declaring "sola scriptura," demands justification for each tradition. If the Bible doesn't require it, the only grounds for keeping it is to placate those in the congregation who still cling to such things for sentimental reasons, as for "weaker brethren." Frequently, even that last support for tradition fails when the church seeks to attract a younger generation that hasn't been made familiar with traditional practices.

Recently I sat in a worship service in a Presbyterian church in which the pastor questioned the common Reformed practice of placing the pulpit front and center in the sanctuary, and even of having a pulpit at all. "This is the way we've always done things," he said, which was not sufficient to justify continuing such practices. Other churches, pursuing "contemporary worship," have phased out older hymns, classical architecture and furnishings, coats and ties for the pastors, sermon references to church history, and traditional liturgies with the reciting of historical creeds and confessions. In place of these is the "praise band" with lyrics written last week, a warehouse-style building with stage lighting, and movie clips to spice up the sermons.

Whatever one's position on the regulative principle of worship, there are several considerations that should give Christians pause before exchanging tradition for the latest worship trend. Whether or not we understand the reasoning of those countless believers before us whose practices became embedded in what we call "traditional worship," abandoning those practices may cost us more than we recognize at first.

Traditional hymns, for instance, tend to have a regular verse-chorus-verse-chorus organization that is conducive to memorization and congregational singing. While new songs may be appropriate in worship (begging the pardon of the exclusive psalmodists), modern worship songs are sometimes irregular in their sequencing and therefore hard to follow, and the anti-traditionalists' relentless search for something new and fresh means that congregations are constantly confronted with songs that they don't know and cannot sing. Broad participation in worship suffers as worship becomes a spectator event at which professionals perform.

The placement of a pulpit has been a distinctive of Reformed churches for hundreds of years. It has signified the centrality of the preached Word of God in those churches. No, the Bible does not specify that there must be a pulpit, or that it must be placed front and center. But the traditional placement conveys the message of historical priorities. The traditional-versus-contemporary discussion is about more than differing tastes and preferences. Tradition communicates the lessons of centuries past.

Traditional Parenting

Questions about tradition extend outside the church walls. Christian parents, wanting to bring their children up Biblically and mindful of the errors of the Pharisees, may think that a "this is how we've always done things" is inadequate to justify a family practice. But what families consider "appropriate" attire for church, school, family events, and going to the beach is informed by a long history of cultural expectations. The particular practices that we consider "good manners" or etiquette are not generally traceable to a Bible verse commanding that specific practice. And teenagers, inclined to question parental rules and regulations, may protest that a parent's objection to an unusual hairstyle or application of makeup is only a groundless whim.

Appeal to tradition, however, is perfectly legitimate-so long as that tradition does not violate a Biblical principle. Parents may not be able to articulate moral reasons for their requirement that a daughter wear a particular kind of dress to a wedding, but the requirement embodies something other than an unreasoning attachment to the past. The requirement is a connection to historical, traditional practices that command such respect that we humbly follow them even when we don't understand why they exist. The requirement is based on a presumption that there is a collective wisdom in such cultural practices; they somehow promote the good of the society and would be ignored at our peril.

The Estimable Constraints of History

Those who would throw off traditional constraints must exterminate history-the context in which traditions are born and preserved. For the young person eager to be independent of parental constraints, "what your grandmother used to say" may be irrelevant, merely a piece of family history hauled out by parents wishing to add weight to an unwanted restriction. This is small-scale anti-traditionalism, reflected in hostility toward historical context and the wisdom of elders. But for those who have broader plans for social reform, history and tradition are provincial relics that stand in the way of Progress. These must be replaced with what is new, modern, and scientific. People who are steeped in their history will resist the efforts of the social reformer.

R. J. Rushdoony wrote, "History ... is a road-block to those who wish to remake man."2 Thus, he argued, statist educators who wish to exert control over a society must destroy history, replacing it with science and reason. "Some people do live in the past too much," Rushdoony added, "some live only for the moment, and some, most foolish of all, think they live only by reason."3

The economist Friedrich A. Hayek pointed out the danger of elevating reason and discarding tradition that is not well-understood:

The most dangerous state in the growth of civilization may well be that in which man has come to regard all these beliefs as superstitions and refuses to accept or to submit to anything which he does not rationally understand. The rationalist whose reason is not sufficient to teach him those limitations of the power of conscious reason, and who despises all the institutions and customs which have not been consciously designed, would thus become the destroyer of the civilization built upon them.4

And Blackstone, who argued that "reason is corrupt," noted the importance of adherence to precedent as a collected wisdom of earlier ages:

Not that the particular reason for every rule in law can at this distance of time be always precisely assigned; but it is sufficient that there be nothing in the rule flatly contradictory to reason, and then the law will presume it to be well founded. And it has been an ancient observation in the laws of England, that whenever a standing rule of law, of which the reason perhaps could not be remembered or discerned, hath been wantonly broke in upon by statutes or new resolutions, the wisdom of the rule hath in the end appeared from the inconveniences that have followed the innovation.5

The hazards from poorly considered "innovations" are enough to put the onus on the reformer to state carefully and thoroughly the reasoning for deviating from tradition. Blackstone continues,

The doctrine of the law then is this: that precedents and rules must be followed, unless flatly absurd or unjust: for though their reason be not obvious at first view, yet we owe such deference to former times as not to suppose they acted wholly without consideration.6

A Conflict of Visions

Economist Thomas Sowell expanded on this idea in his book A Conflict of Visions. In it, he explained that there are two "visions," or senses of how the world works. These visions are of two basic types, Sowell says: constrained and unconstrained. A constrained vision is one that sees man as morally and intellectually constrained, prone to selfishness and not easily improved. The unconstrained vision, which is optimistic about human potential, sees man as capable of overcoming those constraints to design and create a better society.

The unconstrained vision favors sophisticated intellectuals who will overturn tradition in favor of innovation. The constrained vision sees the complexity of society as beyond the capacity of any intellectual to understand, so that we must rely on customs and traditions as guides to behavior. "In the constrained vision," Sowell writes, "where knowledge was a multiplicity of experience too complex for explicit articulation, it was distilled over the generations in cultural processes and traits so deeply embedded as to be virtually unconscious reflexes-widely shared."7

The Faith of Our Fathers

The Christian view is a blend of these two visions. It is partly an unconstrained vision. By the work of the Holy Spirit, we can achieve an improvement in our behavior toward those around us. By the light of God's Word, we can see places where ancient cultural practices should be changed. But there are constraints: our sin natures are with us all our lives, and it would be unwise indeed to ignore our tendency toward evil. Regard for tradition serves as a valuable restraint in society, cautioning us from thinking too highly of ourselves and our modern intellects. And, while the Bible clearly trumps tradition if the two come into conflict (e.g., Matthew 15:1-9), the lessons of history and tradition are not to be disregarded. This is seen in the respect we should have for those who are older, as in I Peter 5:5a: "Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders," (the word "elders" used here in the sense of an older man, as in I Timothy 5:1).

The "faith of our fathers" is embedded in worship practices, creeds and confessions, and family practices. It is even reflected in civil institutions and legal precedents. None of these are perfect, and some may need to be radically changed. But we should be cautious in our reforms. There is value in tradition that we may not recognize until it has been lost. Christians wishing to build a society based on Biblical principles would do well to avoid a "revolutionary" approach that abandons history in favor of the latest innovation.

1. Michael Horton, "Semper Reformanda," Tabletalk, October 1, 2009.

2. Rousas J. Rushdoony, "Chalcedon Report No. 108," in Roots of Reconstruction (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 891.

3. Ibid., 892.

4. Friedrich A. Hayek, The Counterrevolution of Science: Studies on the Abuses of Reason (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979), 162-163.

5. William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 70.

6. Ibid., 70.

7. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions (New York: Basic Books), 42, 43.


Topics: Biblical Law, Church History, Church, The, Reformed Thought

Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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