Tag Archives: tradition

How Tradition defended Scripture & defeated Gnosticism in early Christianity

Continuing a critique of the phrase “Biblical Anglicans” and some possible assumptions behind it:

Throughout his five-volume series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Jaroslav Pelikan, the late Yale historian of Christianity, returned to the formative role of church tradition.

(Granted, as I said before, histories, like texts, are matters of interpretation. But some interpretations are better informed and more authoritative than others.)

In the fifth volume, Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700), Pelikan writes (with direct quotations referring to sources listed in the margins of the book; the sources are omitted here for clarity):

Because it was the period in which historical theology came into its own, especially among Protestants but also among Roman Catholics and (particularly toward the end of the period) among Eastern Orthodox scholars, the nineteenth century confronted the idea of consensus of Christian tradition, and specifically patristic tradition, in a new way. It did seem remarkable that the apologists of the first three centuries in their defenses of the Christian message against pagans and Jews had “totally ignored the living tradition in their theory and criticism of revelation,” which they sometimes seemed to reduce to rational notions of God, creation, and immortality. A growing interest in the historical significance of Gnosticism for the emergence of orthodox Catholic doctrine led to the judgment that since Catholics and Gnostics alike had appealed to the authority of Scripture, the authority of tradition as “a principle standing above Scripture” became a way for Catholic orthodoxy to defeat Gnostic heresy. Irenaeus deserved recognition for being the first who “penetrated to the full value of the Catholic principle of tradition and developed its probative force.” Having supported the authenticity of the books of the New Testament from the tradition of the universal church, he had, moreover, helped to preserve the very Scripture that Protestants now sought to dissociate from tradition; and he had proved his thesis concerning the unity of apostolicity of the Catholic Church and its tradition by reference to the church of Rome, whose authority Protestants denied; Eastern theologians had to make a special point of explaining his statements about Roman primacy.

The boldfaced segments above were added by me.

Please also see:

Richard Hooker versus the Puritan position—more about the Anglican view of Scripture, Reason & Tradition

“Biblical Anglicans” as “one-third Anglicans”

Anglicanism and “Biblical Anglicans” as “one-third Anglicans”

Anglicanism, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker in the context of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition


Anglicanism, Thomas Cranmer and Richard Hooker in the context of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition

Histories, like texts, are matters of interpretation, and some interpretations are more credible and authoritative than others.

For this post, I’ll rely on the interpretation of William C. Placher, who at the time of writing the below excerpts was professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College.

Here’s Placher on Thomas Cranmer, who was appointed to Archbishop of Canterbury (leader of the Church of England) in 1532:

His interests lay less in systematic theology than in church history, especially the history of liturgy, and in writing the Book of Common Prayer he produced the foundation of much English religion and one of the glories of English prose.

In Cranmer we should see a big piece of what makes Anglicanism distinct: historical liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer, at least according to Placher, in his book A History of Christian Theology (The Westminster Press, 1983).

Now, Placher on Hooker:

In the late 1500s Richard Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity set out a “middle way” between the extremes of Catholicism and Calvinism, a thoughtful and moderate theology that rejected the authority of popes for that of Scripture alone but drew heavily on Christian writers of the first several centuries in interpreting the faith. Such scholarly attention to the early church has been characteristic of English theology ever since, and the theological compromises developed by Hooker and other produced a degree of peace. Some questions of liturgy and church organization, however, could not be compromised — one either had bishops or did not, knelt to pray or remained standing, and so on — and these issues therefore became the center of English theological debate.

In such controversies the Puritan party desired to purify the church — purify it of theological vagueness, moral laxity, elaborate liturgy, and bishops. The English Puritans often claimed to follow Calvin, but Calvin had acknowledged the legitimacy of a number of different forms of church organization and liturgical style.

Placher suggests the Puritans were not seeking the “middle way” of Cranmer and Hooker. He also suggests that the Puritans, as self-proclaimed followers of John Calvin, were not really on the same page as Calvin.

At the same time, as Placher sees it, Hooker was not interested in either “extremes” of Catholicism or Calvinism, suggesting neither the Church of England nor Anglicanism are properly Calvinist or Puritan in essence (nor are they Roman Catholic).

As in his assessment of Cranmer, Placher also identifies in Hooker a concern with early church traditions that pre-date the canonization of the Bible as the Puritan knew it.

For more context related to Anglicanism, Scripture, Reason, and Tradition, please also see:

Anglicanism and ‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’

‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’

Must-read: Stanley Fish on Terry Eagleton’s book, ‘Reason, Faith, and Revolution’

‘Biblical Anglicans’ as the ‘one-third Anglicans’

Updated at 11:20 p.m. [Jan. 9] with a link to a video clip at the end.
Updated at 1 p.m. Jan. 27 with an excerpt from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

Anglicans often have been defined and identified by their braid of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition.

Of course, the use of “Biblical Anglicans” or “Biblical Anglicanism” in the current global environment says less about historical understanding and more about contemporary political rhetoric.

However, the use of “Biblical Anglicans” still raises the question: why not assert all of the whole, instead of one-third? Why not say, “Historical Anglicanism: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition”?

I’m afraid the emphasis on one-third of the whole stems from an underlying belief that Reason and Tradition caused all things that, accurately or inaccurately, are now tagged “un-biblical.”

Let’s clarify a couple of things. “Reason” here doesn’t even mean “narcissistic, arrogant humanism,” as a Biblical Anglican might fear. Religion professor Richard T. Nolan says, in the context of Anglicanism, reason

is misunderstood when understood as theoretical reasoning. Reason was understood in a classical sense, drawing from Plato and Aristotle, as a participatory knowledge. To know something was to experience it, to share or participate in something. Hence, scripture and reason inform each other. Again, there is a mutual, inward hold that scripture makes upon us and we upon it. As such, reason may be best understood as a practical wisdom. It is in this sense that scripture, tradition, and reason inform each other.

But that does not conflate Scripture, Reason, and Tradition as three versions of the same thing. The Biblical Anglicans, or One-Third Anglicans, seem comfortable with Tradition and Reason as handy proofs for the authority of Scripture, rather than being forms of authority themselves. That approach would not be historically accurate. Consider two cases in point.

First, Benjamin Amundgaard says,

Another understanding of the interplay between Scripture, reason, and tradition came in the early 1830s from the Oxford Movement. Led by John Keble, John Henry Newman, Hurrell Froude, and Edward Pusey, the movement sought to restore the place of tradition in the life of the Church. The Oxford men believed that it was wrong to suggest that all doctrines and practices must come directly from Scripture, but that such could be warranted if they were indirectly evidenced in Scripture and clearly practiced in the early Church (i.e., tradition).

Amundgaard goes on to quote a tract on infant baptism, written by the Oxford Movement leaders:

Where is this enjoined in Scripture? No where. Why do we observe it? Because the primitive Church observed it, and because the Apostles in Scripture appear to have sanctioned it, though this is not altogether certain from Scripture.

Notice that clause: Because the primitive Church observed it…

To round out the point, Amundgaard quotes another Oxford Movement tract:

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Episcopacy is in fact not at all mentioned in Scripture: even then it would be our duty to receive it. Why? because the first Christians received it. If we wish to get at the truth, no matter how we get at it, if we get at it. If it be a fact, that the earliest Christian communities were universally episcopal, it is a reason for our maintaining Episcopacy; and in proportion to our conviction, is it incumbent on us to maintain it.

Keep that last quotation in mind.

Now, the second case in point.

Early in his acclaimed book A Brief History of the Episcopal Church, Professor David L. Holmes devotes a section to the Book of Common Prayer. In the below revealing excerpts, Holmes is referring to the second edition (1552) of the Book of Common Prayer, which was Thomas Cranmer’s revision of his original work, and a tweaked 1559 edition released by Queen Elizabeth.

As it did during Edward’s time, the Elizabethan Prayer Book had opponents who felt it did not move far enough…. The Puritan party, which desired biblical warrant for all beliefs, practices, and offices of a Christian church, viewed the Prayer Book as a half-way house to true reform and objected that it retained practices that were unscriptural.

Furthermore, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church said of Puritans,

They demanded express Scriptural warrant for all the details of public worship, believing that all other forms were popish, superstitious, idolatrous, and anti-Christian.

I’m not trying to rebut the Puritan party in its entirety, but notice the reasoning and reasonableness in the above Oxford Movement tract excerpts versus the unattainable and unrealistic goals of the Puritan party, at least as far as Holmes describes them.

The goals were “unattainable and unrealistic” because Christian liturgical worship, and its antecedents in Jewish liturgical worship, both were established prior to the final canonization of the Christian Bible.

In his book Whose Bible Is It? A Short History of the Scriptures, the late Yale University historian Jaroslav Pelikan explains how and when the Christian Bible was (more or less, as we’ll see) finalized as a specific collection of books.

The writings of Eusebius and of his contemporary, Athanasius of Alexandria, make it evident that agreement on the disputed books was approaching by the middle of the fourth century and that the canon of the New Testament which now appears in the Christian Bible was gaining general, if not quite universal, acceptance. That canon appears for the first time in a letter of Athanasius issued in 367 CE.

After that letter other traditions held their own for a time. Thus the scholars and theologians of Antioch in general accepted only three Catholic Epistles — James, 1 Peter, and 1 John — while one of its most illustrious representatives, Theodore of Mopsuestia, rejected the whole of this section of the canon. The West followed the lead of Athanasius. In 382 a synod was held at Rome under Pope Damasus, at which the influence of Jerome secured the adoption of a list of books answering to that of Athanasius. This was ratified by Pope Gelasius at the end of the fifth century. The same list was confirmed independently for the province of Africa at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 and 419 under the leadership of Augustine of Hippo. The second canon of the Second Trullian Council of 692…may be taken to have formally closed the process of the formation of the New Testament for East and West. This stands in sharp contrast to the status of the Old Testament canon within the church, which was not acted upon by an “ecumenical” church council until the Council of Trent in 1546 and then in a way that has gone on being disputed because of the status of the Apocrypha.

(Notice the finalization of the canon actually “has gone on being disputed” due to differences in opinion regarding the Apocrypha. Christianity, writ large, agrees on the majority of Scripture but not upon the canon.)

So: Reason and Tradition were instrumental in deciding what books would be part of the New Testament. Reason and Tradition made certain books part the package we call The Bible. (Again, that’s “reason” as defined above.)

But wait — an agreed-upon, basic package of Scriptural books did not mean Bibles were immediately published and distributed to local Christian bookstores and downloaded onto Kindles.

So Christian life, worship, and expression (arts, architecture, and rituals in particular), along with a provisional New Testament, were vital elements within various communities of believers before the Bible could be called the Bible. Traditions, practices, and rituals were foundational to architecture and worship spaces. As a small example, see the remnants of a Christian basilica I photographed in Ostia Antica, ancient harbor city of Rome, this past October.

The Puritan party would have had us believe, and the Biblical Anglican neo-Puritans of today would have us believe, that there must be “biblical warrant for all beliefs, practices, and offices of a Christian church.” But that’s to cut off — and degrade — the Christianity that existed prior to canonization, the very Christianity that provided the seedbed in which decisions about the canon were made.

Furthermore, even if we could establish “biblical warrant,” even that isn’t completely precise and certain, according to some Calvinist scholars.

I want to go back to the idea of reason again. The Truth is not the rubber ball that bounces between the believer’s head and the Bible. Reason, as described by Nolan, is a matter of practical and well-practiced wisdom. Reason, in this sense, is also a matter of one’s surrounding cultural and social climates, which inform one’s interpretation of the available translation.

This is where practice and experience and community come into play. As an analogy, reading blueprints is not the same as building a house. Reading blueprints won’t tell you how to build a house, either, just give you the basic structure and measurements. Sure, you need blueprints. But that’s not all, not if you want a place to dwell.

Update: See this brief video clip of Camille Paglia’s interaction with an audience member, regarding the Reformers, the Puritans, and their view of the arts and the Bible.

Using the language I know

I thought at this point I had made my sense of things clear: For several types of reasons, I’m just not sure about the Christian faith anymore.

However, most of my life, I have lived and learned within the context of at least four distinct forms of Protestant Christianity.

I find nothing inconsistent about being doubtful while critiquing Christian leaders based upon the inconsistencies between their public claims and their ministries.

Especially when those Christian leaders made my doubts seem more legit, not less.

I once read an interview with the man behind the band Iron & Wine. He said some folks had asked him why he uses biblical language and allusions in his songwriting when he is not a believer.

The thrust of his answer, as I recall it, was something like this: it’s the language available to me, and it fits the settings and characters of my songwriting.

I certainly see the richness of various Christian traditions. In a world gone gnostic, with so much of our communication taking place in disembodied formats, Christianity still has rich veins of language and symbolism and ritual, however despised by the new iconoclasts of both evangelicalism and atheism.

In a world gone gnostic, the thought of logos made flesh ought to fascinate anyone who appreciates tactile, sensory experience.

Beyond that, I would say to any young writers in my classrooms, use the materials you have — stories from your lives, images, settings, characters, cadences, symbols, archetypes, and songs.

Sometimes, if you’re diligent in setting the context, the truth will show up.

Tradition can help us avoid gnosticism

“…because of the doctrine of creation, historical locatedness is something good. The tradition we inherit is part of our location in history, and so in doing theology it is necessary to relate to the tradition.” — Stephen R. Holmes, in Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology

I like that quotation because, when I was younger, I felt like the Christian faith was about disembodied spiritual experiences, but that’s probably because (where I was for most of my upbringing) instant and immediate experiences of God were valued more than biblical study or any reference to previous generations of Christians.

So I place a slight stretch on the word “gnosticism,” applying it to any anti-materiality accompanied by specially obtained knowledge or experience. The “doctrine of creation” and, as academic as it might sound, “historical locatedness” are definite remedies for gnosticism.

Tradition and Gospel in tandem: ‘to embody mystery through manners’

I was walking across campus the other day, staring at the architecture in the soft autumn light of a late afternoon, when my mind finally sifted out the basic elements of something that has bothered me for quite a while.

To believe in the Gospel, it seemed to me, was to believe in the constant immediacy of conviction and grace, like an ever-igniting match, always new and alive and available, and something so essentially necessary and beneficial as to demand one’s full attention.

To live my life well and responsibly, it seemed to me, required a keen understanding of what had gone before me and a discipline to order my life according to the healthy and time-tested patterns we can know through history, study, family, traditions, and the like.

It (now) seems like the radical immediacy of the Gospel message versus the undeniable demands of temporal existence. Like looking in two opposite directions at the same time. Maybe that’s just me — I can see things in a way that is “a little too black and white.”

But I have a suspicion that others treat these two orientations — the Gospel and good patterns — as mutually exclusive. I agree that they seem at odds with each other at times, and yet I don’t think they need to be.

It seemed that a pivot point was the rearing of children.

The responsibility of creating a coherent home life (as well as rearing healthy children) seemed a likely incentive for married couples to look to what their parents and grandparents have done — holiday traditions, treasured recipes, cooking together, hunting together, etc., as well as approaches to discipline and moral education. Even when their parents and grandparents have been less than nurturing, a married couple with children will want to draw on basic cultural knowledge to inform their family lives.

A broad range of continuities can contribute to an individual’s identity: familial traditions, national traditions, the reading of our Western literature, knowledge of one’s cultural inheritance, and so forth. These are all things that locate us in time and place and within our messy but essential humanity — all these sources of identity being boundaries against the dislocation and anti-materiality of Gnosticism.

With this in mind, it is reasonable for younger advocates of the Gospel to protest when they see the older generation embracing traditions while not making the Gospel the priority. However, in the process of the protest, if they excoriate traditions too much, the inevitable response from the older generation will be that the youngsters do not know how difficult it has been to maintain those healthy continuities of identity and how difficult it is to create and maintain a coherent home life.

Flannery O’Connor once wrote of the desire “to embody mystery through manners.”

If we think of the mystery of Christ and His church and His sacraments, and we want to embody our knowledge of, love for, and belief in that mystery in all we do, then we will inevitably set some patterns, habits, even rituals into our lives.

Or at least we’ll try. Executing what we know is a constant challenge.

Conservative revolution, radical revolution: there’s a difference

There is a difference between a conservative revolution and a radical revolution.

A conservative revolution seeks to preserve and reinvigorate good old things.

A radical revolution can seek to tear down institutions and established ways; but, sometimes a radical revolution merely wants to pursue a new vision of Utopia. The former version of radical revolution is anarchic; the latter is misguided.


“Our evidence shows that Reformers considered the patristic tradition as second only to biblical authority, and used it as a critical source in vindication of their views. The Tradition of the church was not the same as the traditions which they opposed; in fact the former helped to expose the nature of the latter,” Daniel H. Williams wrote in Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. (That is why it has been difficult to hear some speak of recent “revivals” as similar events to the Reformation.)


In the old days, I was once told, school children had copybooks, and across the tops of these pages were written wise, time-tested sayings. As G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis often noted in their times, old points of view frequently were mocked and belittled as things of the past, yet the mocking and the belittling had more to do with fashionable thinking than serious thinking.

If you’ll forgive Rudyard Kipling much of who he was, and if you’ll endure his old style of poetry, you will find a brilliant expression of radical revolution (in conflict with wise old ways) in his poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”

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