He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Protestant Intuition: Necessity & Tradition

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

In one conversation I had with a friend regarding prayer and Mary the mother of Jesus, it was proposed to me as obvious that if I was directly in communication with Jesus,  I would not want to also petition Mary.  I don't think that this is obvious at all, and that there is an obvious cognate in human family life which cuts against the idea.

Let's suppose that I am married.  Obviously, my primary relationship is going to be with my wife.  I will look to her before all others and want to cultivate a special and deeper relationship with her than with others.  Nonetheless, I would also want to include her parents and siblings and friends in our life together.  While there might be times during which I need to communicate with her alone, under many circumstances I would also be communicating with her family and friends in her presence; we would engage in a dialogue of love, deepening our love of one another as a whole family.  In a similar fashion, we would not exclude Mary and Joseph from our dialogue of love simply because they are not Jesus and it's not necessary to communicate with anyone beside Him.

 It was also proposed to me that it was not necessary to confess my sins to a priest, and I quite agree that it is not necessary to confess my sins to a priest, just as I would agree that it is not necessary to communicate with anyone beside Jesus.  I would also suggest that it is not necessary to have beautiful churches which raise our minds to heavenly things, that it is not necessary to have monasteries or abbeys, that it is not necessary to build hospitals and food pantries.

There is an intuition typical to Protestants (I know because I was one) that in matters of faith we should eschew what is not strictly necessary. I understand that intuition, but I no longer share it. After all, it's not necessary to go to church, right? When I was a Protestant, I did not go to church because it was necessary. I went because it was good for me. I went because it was an exercise of faith that strengthened me in faith. I went because I wanted to share my faith with others. If I only did or believed what was necessary, I would have missed a great many blessings in my life. That's ultimately why the "it's not necessary" argument isn't compelling to me.

I would suggest that our standard for deciding whether or not we perform an act as part of our Christian life should not be to answer the question of whether or not the act is necessary, but to answer the question of whether or not the act is good.  Is the act good for our communion with Christ or his Church?  That of course still leaves plenty of room for disagreement, but at least we could begin the dialogue by asking the right question together.

Disagreement has been a constant issue within the Church from the time of the Apostles into the time of the early Church fathers continuing into the next millennium.  As the Church developed in the world, formal processes for handling disagreement were needed to maintain the unity of the faith, and the Church used appeals to the regional Patriarch and Ecumenical Councils for this purpose.  The bishops who succeeded the Apostles used careful study of Sacred Scripture as well as the portions of oral tradition which were not recorded in Sacred Scripture to help them define the content of the faith in more detail and precision.

 Sometimes, disagreements arose because a practice was neither supported nor refuted by Scripture and another means of determining whether or not a practice is coherent with an authentic Christianity which is true to Christ's teachings was needed.  Here the existing tradition of the Church (comprised of its theology, canons, and pious beliefs) was used to inform the decision as to whether or not to adopt the practice.

Some Protestants reject the idea that Church tradition ought to be used to make these decisions, instead relying on the light of reason (assuming the axioms granted them by Scripture) to help them in deciding on practices about which there is disagreement.  Where the available evidence doesn't lead in either direction, we need to use the individual reason which results in hundreds of Christian denominations only if we assume that what the early Church tells us is not evidence or is evidence of lying. And if the testimony of the early Church is not evidence or is evidence of lying, then we have no reason to trust Sacred Scripture, given that the early Church formed the constituent texts of the New Testament.

A rejection of Sacred Tradition is also a rejection of the reliability of Sacred Scripture because the scriptures are primarily comprised of the recorded oral tradition of the early Church and the books which were included in Sacred Scripture were decided upon by the bishops of the early Church.  If Sacred Tradition is not trustworthy, then we have no reason to believe that we can trust the Sacred Scripture produced by that tradition.  Without authentic Christian tradition, we not only have no authoritative way to settle disagreements, but we do not even have authoritative Sacred Scripture over which we can argue using our reason.

Some might object and claim that trusting the early Church implies that Tradition is greater than Scripture, but this conclusion does not follow from the premise unless we accept the false dichotomy which presents Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as completely distinct from one another rather than as an integrated pair in dialogue and development with the world and with each other.

At most, I suspect that trusting the tradition of the early Church might imply that the tradition of the early Church is greater than a private contemporary interpretation of Scripture divorced from that tradition. But that proposition doesn't trouble me; I fully admit that the early Church, being closer to the language and cultures of the time as well as the persons involved in the events recounted, is likely to have a better sense of the kernel of the faith than I would as a Christian living in the modern era with no direct contact with the Apostles or their disciples.

An acceptance of a strong role for Tradition is indeed a necessity if we are to take the Christian worldview seriously at all.  And while Tradition is a necessity, Scripture is very good and we ought not to exclude it on the basis that it is not strictly necessary.  After all, we know that Scripture is good because our authentic Christian Tradition produced it and protected it.

For more on Protestant Intuitions and why I have given them up, see part 3 of this series here.

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

No comments:

Post a Comment