In this series, I want to discuss the various sources that inform our theology – that is, our understanding of God. For an outline, I will use John Wesley’s Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I realize that this is not new information for many of my readers. However, perhaps we can all help ourselves think about this important topic.
The word “Tradition” conjures up different thoughts to different people. Some think about the confessions and creeds that they hold to. Other think about the details of their practices. But, when “Tradition” is used in the realm of theological sources, it means that group of teachings which is handed down from person to person.
As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, “Tradition” was originally equated with the regula fidei, or the rule of faith, which was passed down from Jesus to the apostles, then from the apostles to their followers, etc. These lists of beliefs were later collected in the form of the early creeds, such as the Nicaean Creed or the Apostles Creed or the Chalcedonian Creed, and later into the various confessions of the Protestant denominations. As time progressed, more and more “beliefs” were added to the various Traditions as well.
However, Tradition is much more than a series of “We believe” statements. The regula fidei was also seen as a protection against misinterpreting the Scriptures. Thus, Tradition formed a hermeneutical fence around the Scriptures, helping readers understand the meaning of the writings.
Today, we still have Tradition. Each denomination – and sometimes groups within denominations and groups that cross denominational lines – have a hermeneutic Tradition. These Traditions guide believers as they read Scripture. Even for those believers who – like myself – grew up with a non- or anti-Traditional, free church background, Tradition plays a huge role in our understanding of God.
Thus, the same Scriptures yield both dispensational and covenantal understandings because of the Tradition of the readers. The same Scriptures yeild emphases on the sovereignty of God or the liberty of man based on the Tradition of the readers. The same Scriptures reveal either a premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial eschatology due to the Tradition of the one reading.
Yes, Tradition still plays an important role in developing a person’s understanding of God. In some ways, this is very good. Tradition can keep someone from straying into unorthodox beliefs based upon a few select texts from Scripture. In some ways, Tradition can be bad. Tradition can cause people to over-emphasize certain texts that agree with their Tradition while ignoring or de-emphasizing other texts which disagree with their Tradition.
However, Tradition does not merely affect our understanding and application of Scripture. In similar ways, Tradition forms how we view and use Reason and logic, and to what extent we allow Experience to inform our theology. Some Traditions rely heavily on Reason, while others view Reason with skepticism. Similarly, some Traditions emphasize Experience, while other Traditions de-emphasize Experience.
As we have already seen, there is interaction between these various theological sources. There is certainly interaction between Scripture and Tradition – and the interaction works in both directions. In all Traditions, Tradition both works with Scripture and also works against Scripture. Similarly, Scripture both works with Tradition and also works against Tradition. These are good and valid interactions.
Here is a simple illustration. In Genesis, God tells Noah to build an ark. In Genesis, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Matthew, Jesus tells the rich, young ruler to sell everything and follow him. In John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. In John, Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. In Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to proclaim the word of God. Each of these commands are given to one person in Scripture. Do the commands apply to only that one person, to a group represented by that one person, or to all people? Scripture will not answer this in all cases. However, Tradition will tell us how to interpret these various passages, and by the way, different Traditions give us different interpretations of some of these very passages.
Recognizing your own Tradition can help you understand why you interpret Scripture the way that you do. Trying to understand another person’s Tradition can also help you understand their interpretation of Scripture and their understanding of God. However, neither Scripture nor Tradition alone can completely answer the question of why we understand God the way that we do. As we keep studying, I think we will see that both Reason and Experience inform our theology. Also, I hope that we will begin to think about other possible sources of theology.