Who cares about tradition? This is a very important question. In the previous post, I highlighted the importance of both scripture and tradition. In the ancient church, the two worked harmoniously together and one did not contradict the other. The gospel was spreading long before the New Testament Scriptures became widely available. There was a manner of speaking and knowing that began to take shape. When Scripture became more widely available, the tradition that was well established in many communities with many handed onto them by the apostles themselves was confirmed by the scriptures as they became readily available to them. As the different, gospels, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John along with the epistles became readily available, those who held firmly to what was first handed to them grew in their confidence that their belief was nothing new but was the same that was handed to them by Jesus’ own disciples. With others, these document helped them refine what they knew to be true in their own hearts. The universal body of belief, what was the tradition that was held throughout the known world was in existence prior to the Scriptures. This did not in any way make the Scriptures any less significant. Thus the relationship between the Scriptures was always harmonious and positive.
A couple of months ago, my wife and I were doing a usual weekly shopping. I took our usual packet of Weetbix, a breakfast cereal from the shelf. I noticed straightaway that it was smaller but the price was the same. I guessed that a whole row of the biscuit cereal had been removed but I wasn’t sure. Some said the packaging had changed. Others said it might be they made the biscuits smaller. I felt sure I was right as I have used the cereal everyday for years but found it hard to back myself. A few weeks later, the company who made Weetbix announced they had downsized the packet from 1.5kg to 1.2kg with it costing the same. What I knew deep inside me was confirmed through this media announcement. The truth confirmed what I intuitively knew. As the New Testament Scriptures spread throughout the world, what people had been told through word of mouth was now confirmed in writing by those who were closest to Jesus Christ and by those who were in their close knit community. There was a clear method of communicating the gospel long before the New Testament Scriptures established themselves in the manner for which we know them today. However, it was a harmonious relationship between the two.
It appears to me today that many people are so focused on the Scriptures and do not have a clear method of communicating what it is that the Scriptures are driving at. When it comes to sharing the gospel, there is the tendency to want to spout a string of logically ordered passages that somehow magically causes a person to become a Christian. From a non-believers perspective, this kind of communication hardly makes sense and has the opposite effect of driving people away. The gospel with its theme of a turn or burn message is really only a tiny slice of the meaning of the whole scope of Scripture taking it entirely out of its context. Even the most dedicated of these kind of Christians work hard to make sure that what they are declaring makes sense to them as well as those they are attempting to convert.
This kind of message usually begins with the Christian assuming they are reconciled to God and are going to heaven, while all others are separated from Him and are going to hell. Jesus Christ was sent in our place to be punished for our sins. God finds our sinful condition to be so abhorrent in His sight that He cannot even bear to look at us. In addition, it is believed that the sinner cannot even tolerate His absolute presence unless a way is made for them by God. So He sent Jesus Christ on our behalf who lived a life without sin. When He was on the Cross, the Father poured all the sins of the world onto Him. Rather than direct His wrath towards us, He directed it towards His Son. Jesus Christ bore the penalty for our sin and turned God’s wrath aside. When Jesus Christ died it satisfied the extreme standard of God’s holy law. Because He lived the perfect sinless life, the wages of sin that condemn us all to death did not apply to Jesus Christ. God raises Him from the dead. Now if we repent of our sin and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, then we will be saved and receive eternal life. There may be minor differences between denominations but this is very much the evangelical message that appears to get all the publicity. It is heavily focussed on the Cross as the pathway by which, through our own repentance and faith etc, we find the path to the forgiveness of God.
This evangelical message has a narrow slice of the whole scope of Scriptures to validate it. Many passages are cut down to their minimum where they lose their context. The ancient tradition stressed the importance of taking the whole scope of Scripture into account. The idea that human beings cannot tolerate the absolute presence of God does not originate in Christianity. Rather it was a pagan idea that was introduced by the Gnostic way of knowing and Arius as well as many before him attempted to insert it into the mainstream Christian community in the ancient church. When the council of Nicaea was convening in 325AD the reason it was called because of the controversial ideas proposed by Arius that there was a time when Jesus was not. He made this bold statement that human beings cannot tolerate the absolute presence of God. The delegates covered their ears and shouted him down for such a blasphemous statement. This kind of message is mainstream in modern evangelicalism. Arianism and its predecessors were attempting to reform the Christian message so that it would better fit in with their philosophical theories. They would pull out scriptures that would suit and support their theories and ignore the rest. In doing so, the nature of Jesus Christ as one with God was seriously eroded where He becomes just a special man chosen by God. At least evangelicals will assert that Jesus is God but choose to ignore the enormous implications this means for the entire human race. This is the main problem with the mainstream evangelical message. They, too, choose to ignore the enormous and universal implications that stems from the Incarnation.
I say that much of Western and Latin Christianity is very Paganized in their way of thinking and it has blurred the way the Scriptures are read. Arius would be proud of the message that Christianity in general are delivering to their communities. An example of the kind of misunderstanding I have encountered with Christians is like this. What if the only text I have is the Gospel according to John. This is not a bad thing, mind you, and many Christians would be fine with that. In fact, this gospel was considered by the ancient church the one that places the rest of the New Testament in the right frame for interpretation. If in reading this text I learn Jesus is the Word who was in the beginning, was with God and from whom all things were created. So, I accept He is God. No problem there. Then I read further on and find that He has come from the Father’s bosom and was made a human being. Then I find in verse 29 of the same chapter that John the Baptist declares Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (not just Christians). Without reading any other part of the New Testament, do I accept this as fact? Do I go to every person I know and tell them Jesus the Lamb of God has taken away your sin!? When I put this to other Christians, they immediately start with other Scriptures that would appear to contradict this verse. Hang on, then, is this verse wrong? Bearing in mind that I have no access to any other part of the New Testament. This is a real litmus test for how one’s mind is working and whether or not there is a consistent and correct rule for interpretation. I can declare to everyone Jesus is the Lamb of God who has taken away your sin because this is precisely what happened when He appeared to people. Jesus appeared, spoke, acted and they could see clearly because the veil has been removed and whether they believe it or not, Almighty God is before them.
This goes even further. The fact Jesus Christ made Himself human and is right before the people in Israel can mean only one thing: Because God has become human, He is now united Himself to every human being. This was the natural conclusion for the ancient mind if one was to accept who Jesus Christ claimed to be. If one said Jesus of Nazareth is Almighty God, it follows then that in His Incarnation, He joined Himself to every human being making all human beings children of God by adoption! When the Spirit of God opens our eyes and we realise who it is this Jesus of Nazareth is, then we can only conclude, because He was made Man, that Christ is in us. I can only conclude that because the Word was made flesh, Christ is in me! When Saul was struck down by a blinding light with a voice asking, “Why are your persecuting me?” (v. 4) in Acts 9, he naturally asked the question in fear and trembling, “Who are you Lord?” (v. 5) and the response was, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting . .” (v. 5). Paul recalls his encounter in Galatians at a time when there was very little of the New Testament Scriptures available. This is what he said: But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, (Gal. 1.15-16). I came across this around 20 years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. Having read the apostolic fathers extensively as well as researching the nature of the ancient mind in this period, this response to an encounter and Paul’s revelation is not unique to him but his natural conclusion. This is what the Holy Spirit taught him as he did did not consult with flesh and blood. That is, when we intuitively realise that God was made Man, the natural conclusion we draw is the same as Paul’s, “It is the pleasure of God to reveal His Son in us,” Christ is in us!
If Christ is in us then we can play the implication out all the more. When He was born, we were all born in Him. When He died, we all died in Him. When He rose from the dead, we all rose in Him. When He ascended to the right hand of the Father, we all ascended to the right hand of the Father. This was none of our doing. Jesus Christ is in us and we did not put Him there. The Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. The Holy Spirit is united in His Being with the Father and the Son and they have made their home in us. It is this kind of language that was well established in the ancient Christian community even before the New Testament Scriptures came into existence. As the NT Scriptures become more readily available over the decades following Pentecost, the tradition fitted into the whole scope of Scripture like a dovetail affirming what the Christian community already knew. Even in the Reformation in the middle of the second millennium, the language of the ancient tradition gained a foothold in the Reformers giving them the correct means of interpreting the Scriptures through the eyes of the ancient mind.
The tradition gives us an objective discipline so we can keep true to what was first handed to us from the Apostles and taught by Jesus Christ Himself. As I have said before, it is the Niceno/Constantinopolitan Creed that gives us the framework through which the Scriptures are to be correctly interpreted so that we have the means of understanding them as the original authors intended. If people ask us How can you say that? Why do you believe that? it is because this is what the Creed informs us and it is what the Church believes and has believed since the very beginning.