Thursday, July 31, 2014

Tradition is not what it is cracked up to be

To read some comments here one is well excused for thinking that when God inspired the sacred writings that have become our Holy Scripture and when the church turned its understanding of Scripture into T/tradition, absolutely everything was set down as immutable utterances for which no change of application can be envisaged.

Two (perennial) issues have triggered such comments: women in ministry and homosexuals in relationships.

On the possibility of women being ordained as presbyters and bishops (if not deacons as well) a line advanced has been that 2000 years of tradition has witnessed to God's  clear revelation that women may not lead the church. An evangelical such as myself, questioning whether the tradition is quite so immutable on the matter, has apparently crossed a line.

Yet this argument about immutability in respect of ministry is oddly at odds with the witness of Scripture itself about ministry in the church. Consider that whatever Jesus intended about the order of the church by appointing twelve apostles:
- the early church had to discover for itself through trial and error that the apostles needed serving-at-table assistants (Acts 6)
- the terms 'episcopos' and 'presbyter' appeared to be interchangeable, as testified by 1 Timothy where the ministries of episcopoi and diakonoi are laid out in chapter 3, with no mention of presbuteroi, yet the role of episcopos there seems very presbuteros-like.

In short, the early church was flexible and evolving in its understanding of ministry offices, adapting that understanding according to the circumstances of churches as the gospel took root in different contexts. To coin a phrase (not), Scripture's own theology of ministry is contextual!

I was reminded of this yesterday while being involved in an ecumenical theological consultation concerning the future of Christchurch. One of our contributors noted the incarnation as the great distinctive of Christianity: God has become one of us, God has contextualised himself in our midst.

(My mind reflected on the non-controversy over contextual theology versus systematic theology. Theology - true Christian, Christ in us theology is both contextual and systematic. We are always interpreting the gospel for our time and location while always bearing witness to the immutable truths of the gospel (the Incarnation being one of those).)

So when we survey the context of our world today, we live in a different world to the world of the New Testament. The changing context is leading to a changing understanding of ministry in respect of gender. Women  are in a different place in relation to men compared to former times. A simple example of this difference is attested to by our forthcoming General Election (20 September 2014): once no one voted, then men voted without thought that women might also vote, indeed women had to protest in order to gain the vote but now we live in a society in which we make changes which include men and women as equals (and any exceptions are immediately contested). Further, we are restless about other societies which maintain inequality (for example, recently Obama has spoken out against female genital mutilation).

Responsible theology, working from the incarnation and noting the mutability of ministry in the New Testament asks whether 2000 years of practice that women may not be presbyters or bishops (may be even not deacons) is due to an immutable revelation from God or to an assumption which made sense in a different context and which is mutable in our context today.

So, to my critics who have advanced arguments here along the lines of 'God doesn't change his mind,' I say,

'Do we know that God has made up his mind about how the church should live in today's different world?' And,

'Why should we presume that we know the mind of God for ministry in changing circumstances any better than the church in Acts 5?' (By Acts 6, it had changed its understanding of what God willed for ministry!)

Oh, yes, and the context re homosexuality has changed too! More anon.


carl jacobs said...

Oh hoorah! We have new contexts now. I shall immediately communicate to my wife the extraordinary benefits of Open Marriage. Or perhaps not. She tends to the reactionary side on such matters. Not very enlightened, you see. She would need to be gradually brought around. But now that I know I can apply new contexts, I can proceed without guilt. Onward to Google and a quick perusal of Christian Swinger websites.

And, no, Peter. That isn't any different. It's exact the same thing.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Carl
I can appreciate your humour!
But you are not taking my argument seriously as it involves engaging with Scripture's own contextual approach to ministry.
By contrast I cannot think of anything Scripture says which gives us a steer towards open marriage in any context which swings our way.
However Scripture does say that a cheerful heart doeth good like a medicine!

carl jacobs said...


I cannot think of anything Scripture says which gives us a steer towards legitimized homosexual behavior in any context which swings our way.

At all. Anywhere. Not by statement. Not by inference. Not by even by that mystical talisman of progressive thought - the penumbra. If I can make claims about sinfulness of adultery based on Scripture, then I can likewise make claims about the sinfulness of homosexual behavior based on Scripture. They both represent different manifestations of the same moral imperatives. You cannot separate one from the other.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Carl
You seem to be commenting on a future post not the present post.
Shall we wait and see what I actually say in that post?

carl jacobs said...


What I am demonstrating is that an appeal to context cannot override the fixed moral universe in which we exist. Any appeal to context is necessarily constrained. You must first establish the boundaries, and do so from authority. What you cannot do is move the boundary because you think the context had changed. That is nothing more than setting the boundary on your own authority. And that you are not allowed to do.

If a behavior is universally condemned, then context cannot be shifted in order to justify that behavior in the particular.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Carl
That is true to the extent that there is a fixed moral universe.

Is usury in that universe or a parallel one?

carl jacobs said...


So if you want to have a discussion about usury, then we can lay out what Scripture says about it, and I would agree to be bound by the result. For myself I will say that I taught my children to never lend money but consider it a gift. That's my personal practice.

But I wasn't launching a pre-emptive strike on usury. I was addressing this statement ...

yes, and the context re homosexuality has changed too!

Because there are few things more fixed in the moral universe than sexual morality.


Andrew W said...

… which is one thing I would commend Archbishop Welby for. Whether his method is effective or ineffective, he is at least making an effort to attack the sinful "credit culture" that Western society has built up.

Note that I do not see the Scriptures as providing a blanket condemnation on all lending for interest, but they certainly condemn doing it for the poor. One lends to the poor as an act of charity, not a way of making money of their need.

And in abandoning that principle, we see the results. People are more willing to lend, because they see it not as charity but as a way of getting richer. People borrow beyond their means, sometimes because they need to, but often because they can, and thus get caught in a credit trap. And the whole process results in increasing cost for semi-essentials, thus benefiting those who have and those who lend the poor money for things they think they need.

So yes, Usury is a massive problem in society today, and one that we need to do far more to own up to and deal with than we currently do.

But that doesn't mean that investing for profit is bad. Nor does a failure to fully deal with the issue of usury mean that we should aggressively seek to fail in other areas also. That makes as much sense as saying "we already have 'flu, so let's get tetanus too".

Father Ron Smith said...

M<y earlier comment, Peter, may have been 'lost in the post'? However, in response to your final summary :

"Do we know that God has made up his mind about how the church should live in today's different world?" And,

"Why should we presume that we know the mind of God for ministry in changing circumstances any better than the church in Acts 5?' (By Acts 6, it had changed its understanding of what God willed for ministry!)" I would respond:

Being merely human, and not privy to the mind of God, any more than the Spirit of God who is still searching the mind of the Lord?

re Romans 11:33ff: "Who could ever know the mind of the Lord?" So how, possibly, could we humans plimb the infinite depths of the wisdom of God?

Tradition is meant to help us into the future - a step on the ladder to perfection, surely - not a stumbling block to further revelation of God's evolving plan for our lives!

"Where there is no vision, the people perish". If we think, for one moment, that God has finished the work of revelation of God's divine plan and purpose, we may be committing that 'sin against the Holy Spirit' Scripture warns us of.

The work of redemption has already been done - in Christ Jesus. We have yet to find out how best to access that gift in our day & age. In the meantime, we have the sacramental grace of the Holy Eucharist, which Jesus left us as 'Food for the journey' of Faith.

Andrew Reid said...

May I put in a plug for Article 34 - "Of the Traditions of the Church" - here? Very Anglican I know, but bear with me.
It basically makes 3 points:
1. Church traditions and ceremonies can be different according to time and place.
2. Don't break traditions without a good reason, so that people's consciences are not harmed.
3. Local churches can change any tradition ordained by man's authority.

So the issue is one of authority. God's word is the ultimate authority which cannot be changed. Issues established by man's authority (eg liturgy, church order, adornments/ vestments) are changeable. Of course there's a big debate about whether particular issues fall under God's or man's authority, but we have to start from this point. Too many people invert this principle: God's word can be adapted or reinterpreted for our time and place, while church tradition must not be violated under any circumstances.

Peter Carrell said...

Excellent Andrew! About an hour ago I introduced Article 34 into the work I am doing on my next post. Great minds think ...

Authority ... Bryden Black will be in 'heated agreement' on that, as I am!

Pageantmaster said...

I suppose it comes down to what the sneaky squamate asked: "Did God really say?"

Father Ron Smith said...

So, Andrew, do you think that the strictures 'of God' in the Old Testament are still valid for today? What for instance, do you think about the need of radical circumcision - which one of the newly-emerging congregations of ex-Anglicans in Hamilton is now prescribing for its male members? Is that not some sort of reversion to O.T. theology? And is is right?

I guess the reason Jesus was put to death by his Jewish peers, was because He advocated some radical change in the UNDERSTANDING of the requirements of God's word in the
(O.T.) Scriptures.

Or do you dispute that? Do you think that the Law has not been overcome by Grace - in the N.T.?

Peter Carrell said...

Indeed, Pageantmaster, but a goodly if not godly Protestant also asks 'What did God say?' and 'What did God mean when God said ...'

Peter Carrell said...

Dear Ron and other commenters here,
I will no longer publish comments here which allege that the sermon in question prescribes circumcision for males who belong to churches today.

I have heard the sermon, the comment was tongue in cheek. Misrepresentation of what people say can only be tolerated for so long.

liturgy said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Peter, and looking forward to the development of this series.

The presupposition you begin with deserves reflection: “God inspired the sacred writings that have become our Holy Scripture and when the church turned its understanding of Scripture into T/tradition…”. That this is not indisputable can be seen by stretching it in a reversal:

“God acted in His creation culminating in Christ, and when God inspired that the core of the church’s T/tradition about this be set in the sacred writings that have become our Holy Scripture…”

If the Holy Scripture = God’s revelation; and T/tradition is reduced to merely “the church’s understanding of Scripture”, then those who argue for the immutability of the Scripture = the once-for-all-time revelation is comprehensible and consistent.



Peter Carrell said...

Indeed, Bosco, the interplay between tradition/Scripture and Scripture/Tradition or Scripture/tradition is subtle and sophisticated.

St Paul himself taught what had been 'traditioned' down to him (1 Cor 11) as well as that which God 'revelationed' to him apart from anyone's 'traditioning' to him (Galatians).

My distinction here, between 'Holy Scripture' and T/tradition=church's handling of Scripture, at the least, is captured in the words of BS Childs on my sidebar,

"The function of the Christian canon was to separate the apostolic witness from the ongoing tradition of the church, whose truth was continually in need of being tested by the apostolic faith. "

Pageantmaster said...

Ah well, Peter+, the limbicly-challenged reptile is the great contextualiser.

As a reformed and catholic Anglican, I know that:

1. Holy Scripture contains everything necessary for salvation and we are not required to believe anything which cannot be read therein or proved thereby has to be believed for our salvation. [Article VI]

2. the Holy Scripture referred to consists of the canonical books of the Old and New Testament and their authority has never been doubted in the Church. [Article VI]

3. The Old Testament is not contrary to the New and the moral commandments of the Old Testament require our obedience, although ceremonies and rites or the civil precepts on which they are based [Article VII]

4. We in the Church are charged with keeping the Scriptures but i]may not decide or teach anything which is contrary to Scripture
ii]may not read one part of Scripture as contrary to another [Article XX]

5. Church councils and synods can err indeed can err even on the nature of God if their members are not submitted to the Word of God and His Spirit [remember the Spirit never contradicts the Word]and such decisions on salvation issues have no authority unless shown as taken from Scripture [Article XXI]

So fortunately knowing what Scripture is and its authority, that one part of Scripture does not contradict another, and that there is a golden thread passing through the Scripture by which God repeats the same messages through different writers and times, quite remarkably in fact, reading it as a unity, we are not left in doubt about what God said or what He meant. He speaks loudly and clearly. We do not need to fret over one passage, contextualise, define and categorise it, or dismiss it, because it is part of a whole and a unity; a lively and living gift which shows us the way.

If we are unclear, it is because we are not ready to submit to a will other than our own. We have hardened our hearts and will try to wriggle and slither around it, just as the Serpent sought and seeks to teach us to.

It is not that difficult for a reformed and catholic Anglican who remembers the things we were first taught in the Church and that is all of us here.

[I will leave Article XXXIV rather than attempt to steal your thunder tomorrow and I am sorry my comment is so long]

Peter Carrell said...

For many things, Pageantmaster, tis thus and so: God's will is clear.

But other commenters here, at similar points in past discussions, have pointed out aspects of life which do not appear to admit that God's will is quite so clear. (May an infertile couple embark on IVF? When is war justified? Does usury have merit (e.g. paying interest helps us to be responsible borrowers)? What are circumstances in which remarriage after divorce may be supported? Is grape-juice an acceptable substitute for wine at communion (when warranted by circumstances)?)

carl jacobs said...


the limbicly-challenged reptile

At first, I didn't even believe that "limbicly" was an actual word. But I looked up the definition and now I believe that phrase to be a horrible British pun about snakes having no legs. Am I correct?

Anyways. Long time no see. :)


Pageantmaster said...

Thank you Peter+

While it may be true that God has no grandchildren and the Gospel has to be preached anew in each generation, it is also true that we are not orphans and have not been left without any guidance.

While the 'Articles of Religion of the Church of England' are focused upon 'those things necessary to be believed for salvation' yet they also help with other matters and if we apply them when reading Scripture as authoritative, a unity, and not self-contradictary, then I perceive that continued reading will give either an answer to a question prayerfully entrusted to it, or a framework in which to consider a new matter.

So for example, if something appears to be prohibited or at odds with the holiness God seeks to call us to in His image, then we should not dismiss it lightly, particularly because we may see some evidence that God uses all things for good.

So for example, usury. In medieval times in Western Christendom lending for interest was prohibited to Christians, including in England and while many of these rules were repealed, some aspects remained embedded in our culture, for example that courts will not enforce unconscionable interest rates. As Carl illustrates, we should be careful about charging interest in our relationships with others, including Christians, and consider carefully whether this is consistent with ethical Christian conduct. Of course the impact of usury is often extreme misery and worse.

Similarly with war. One should not lightly as a Christian dismiss the absolute commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'. There is no escape clause for just war, necessity or any other justification. I certainly have read and understood the highly developed just war theories and know that again often good such as compassion, mercy, courage and sacrifice comes out of war, yet it does involve the possibility even in a just war and in self defence of killing, and in so killing destroying another human being and one whose future capacity for or development of a relationship with God has been terminated early. That is a heavy responsibility and many Christians I respect such as John Stott decided that personally they could not take part actively and so became a medical orderly on grounds of religious conscience. I say that as someone who seriously considered a career in the services just as many of my school-friends went on to do.

Again with divorce, we are helped by Scripture. As it explains, God does not approve divorce involving as it does breach of promise and rejection of his provision, but nevertheless provided for it in certain circumstances because we "hardened our hearts".

I don't immediately find every answer in Scripture and I do not understand everything such as the genocide passages, but I am provided as a reformed and catholic Anglican with a framework with which to respect and seek in Scripture, and if I do not receive an answer, I continue to read and pray, and if I do not understand a passage or something about God, I do not despair but put the passage on one side and return to it later having done some more reading and praying. Sometimes things become clearer, or something is shown to me and the passage makes sense. But I never arbitrarily dismiss Scripture, doubt its authority as the lively Word of God or dismiss its conclusions and I never dismiss it as contextualised by secular norms or culture.

Again a long comment so apologies again and I have sought to skirt around Article XXXIV awaiting with anticipation your magnum opus Peter+.

Carl - you are right, it was a dreadful pun on the legless reptile, not suggesting that it was neurally deficient.

Always a pleasure to debate with you.

Pageantmaster said...


Just on Communion Wine, I don't think we are told the alcohol content of the fruit of the grape we read about being shared in the Last Supper, nor indeed in the miracle at Cana, but I am doubtful that God is limited thereby nor that He is particularly bothered by it - it is the attendance at the feast we have been invited to which I suspect He is most interested in.

I really don't know much about the ethical issues of IVF nor have I searched the Scriptures on the topic but suspect that regarding Scripture in the way Anglicans have will yield fruit without the need to dismiss or contextualise Scripture.

I do think though in the faith we have received and understood as Anglicans we have been provided with the tools to be taught by and to search Scripture and to be open to God teaching us through his Word in it and I have no doubt that includes these questions. What I have learned is never to dismiss it as wrong, culturally, poetically, mythical or otherwise contextualised and so not authoritative or limited in authority but to regard it as authoritative although it may also be other things such as poetry.

One of the things Africans find most patronising about us is when we inform them that they cannot understand the Scriptures because Scripture reads differently in their cultural context. In many cases they understand it better than we do, and are much more competent and educated to make its case than we are.

They are in no doubt about Scripture's authority and how to read it and many are grateful for the way it has reshaped their own cultures and contexts away from oppressive religions and rites and traditions of bondage and inhumanity.

If we allow Scripture authority and yet do not understand it standing against what we perceive as our culture or context, we should not dismiss it or 'contextualise' it, but continue to ponder and search it, knowing that it is given for our benefit, by a Father who loves us, and wants to bring us closer and deeper into transformative relationship with Him, and while we may not comprehend His plans, this parent's Word is to be cherished, respected and appreciated, much as we love Him even though we do not fully comprehend Him.

carl jacobs said...


awaiting with anticipation your magnum opus Peter+.

Yes, actually so am I.

I have the 155s zeroed in, two regiments in blocking position, one regiment held in resetve, an armored brigade ready to counter attack, a FAC on the scene, and fighters high and tight.

I mean ...uh ... I am waiting patiently to analyze your argument.

Carl. ;-)

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Pageantmaster and Carl
I may have set you off polishing your swords and rifles a tad early ...!

Meanwhile, outside the camp, gestation continues :)

Unknown said...

Hi Peter,
what is the ' tradition that is not what it is cracked up to be'?Is it the traditions of the Apostles or the those of the Church Fathers?
Surely not!!! But if you are speaking of the traditions of man,
I am 100% behind you.'Culture' is only the nurturing of a man made CULT.They are usually driven by some humanistic ideology that will reach it's zenith and then fail.
When the Berlin Wall finally collapsed,we saw the truth we had always suspected."They were a nation without a soul and a people
without a spirit".My wife sometimes recounts her days in
Russia in 1970.
It strikes me that there is some inverted logic going down here. We are trying to 'contextulise God's Word into our so called sophisicated age.
Often the question is asked,"is God Relevant to this Modern Age:
when the correct question is,"Is this Modern Age relevant to God?
A song that I learnt at my father's feet says "YES"
(Even me,the greatest of sinners).

Father Ron Smith said...

"(Even me,the greatest of sinners).

Is there not just a teeny-weeny bit of pride here? Maybe one of the most beguiling of sins!

(I'm just a 'poor' sinner, myself!)

Unknown said...

"And why beholdest thou the mote
that is in thy brother's eye,
but perceivest not the beam that is in thine own eye". Luke 6:41.
Have you ever said one good thing
or even,(just a little bit good);
about any orthodox Christian??????
Your fixation on Progressive Christianity,along with it's obsession with feminism and homosexuality;appears to blind you from being able to conduct the most basic of philosophical debates.
I have heard more logicical sence
from the 'soapboxers' in Hyde Park
than from your postings.
Your defence of TEC(USA)and my knowledge of their herectical
apostacy makes me weep for the day that the liberals finally cast the Constitutional Doctrine
of the ACANZP and impose their
humanistic secularisim, in its place.You are welcome to that church Ron ,but I wont be there.
I will have taken my'poor' sinful being to a place, where they understand that SIN is what God says it is and not the liberals think it ought to be.

Peter Carrell said...

OK Ron and Glen
I think we are now crystal clear that you disagree with each other.
I don't see any need to publish further comments in this vein from either of you.