Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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Why Tradition?

People are always shouting they want to create a better future.  It’s not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories re-written.          

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting[1]

The Reformed tradition, confessions of faith, and John Calvin may seem remote from the realities of twenty-first century North America. Adding to this difficulty, the concept of tradition itself is problematic, conjuring up images of a heavy past that weighs down progress by inhibiting insight and innovation. Especially in American culture, a widespread view that the past is a burden must be shed if we are to live freely in the here and now. Waves of immigrants to “the New World”––from the pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony to recent arrivals from Africa, Asia, and Latin America––have put their religious, political, or economic past behind them in search of a new life. The future, not the past, beckons Americans. In one of Gore Vidal’s novels chronicling America’s social and political history, a character observes, “The past for Americans is a separate universe with its own quaint laws and irrelevant perceptions.”[2]

Disregard for tradition that pervades North American life is conspicuous even among Christians, many of whom believe that the dogmas of the past must be left behind if we are to live faithful lives in the present. Protestant Christians are especially disparaging of tradition. One hackneyed caricature of the difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics grant inappropriate authority to tradition while Protestants look only to the Bible as the guide for Christian faith and life. Like most sweeping generalizations, this notion conceals more than it reveals; yet, it discloses the widespread belief that tradition distorts and obscures truth, and so must be swept away. Evangelical Protestants imagine that we must scrape off the doctrinal barnacles of centuries to return to the pristine Christian community of the New Testament, while liberal Protestants imagine that we must erase centuries of racism, patriarchy, and Eurocentrism to construct the pristine Christian community of a new era. Little wonder that we are unsure what to do with hundreds of years of Reformed history, not to mention the fifteen centuries of Christian faith and life that preceded the Reformation. Not surprisingly, we doubt the capacity of the Reformed tradition to help build shared faith and faithfulness among us.

Perhaps we should consider a historian’s distinction between tradition and traditionalism: “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition is the living faith of the dead.”[3] Traditionalism is an uncritical repetition of an accumulated past, while tradition is a lively conversation with those who have lived and died the faith before us. Traditionalism confines us to the musty archives of a lifeless past, but tradition opens up our place within the communion of saints, putting us together with sisters and brothers in the faith throughout time and space who have lived within the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. The experience and wisdom of our forebears in the faith are not inferior to our own; we do not stand at the apex of the history of God’s Way in the world. The alternative to traditionalism, an unquestioning reception of the past, is not an unquestioning faith in the present. Rather, tradition flows from our past into our present as a life-giving stream.

Living Tradition

Wisdom about the nature of Christian faith and faithfulness does not begin with us, with our insights and actions. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall notes: “By its nature Christian theology requires dialogue with and help from ‘a usable past.’” Hall is not an antiquarian, simply enamored of earlier periods; he expresses theology’s need for a usable past.  “Theology,” he writes, “unlike popular philosophies cannot be spun out of one’s own or one’s culture’s immediate experience.  It requires a tradition, a past, with which to struggle and from which to learn.”[4] Hall’s conviction notwithstanding, a danger looms over any age, surely evident in our own––arrogance toward those who have preceded us as we dispense with their lives and their wisdom in favor of our own experience and perceptions. The peril in turning from the past is particularly acute in the church because we then ignore the rich heritage of Christian tradition that is a formative part of what makes us who we are as believers. The contemporary church is rooted in the beliefs and practices of the communities that preceded it. If we avoid serious conversation with the past, we are in jeopardy of accepting it mechanically or departing from it frivolously. Only if we engage the tradition thoughtfully can we both receive its fidelity to the gospel and critique its missteps.

It may be instructive to probe the church’s deep tradition by listening to Irenaeus, a second-century bishop and theologian.  Celebrated for his lengthy work Against the Heresies, a comprehensive refutation of mistaken speculations about the Christian faith, Irenaeus appealed to a summary of Christian belief known as the regula fidei, the “rule of faith. Rule of Faith refers to the account of Christian faith and faithfulness given by early church bishops to new believers in preparation for their confession of the church’s faith at baptism. As a basic digest of the Christian story, these summaries were the focal point of Christian identity for the church and for individual believers, setting forth distinctive Christian convictions and behaviors in the midst of an incompatible culture. “Rule” may be a somewhat misleading term, because the rule of faith was not promulgated by a central authority and its wording was not fixed. But while the exact form of the rule of faith was specific to each bishop’s diocese, the summaries were not divergent, for all expressed the central convictions that provided the whole church with norms of Christian faith and practice. Irenaeus himself sets out varying versions of the rule, but they were consistent with each other and with the accounts of other bishops.  All followed the same three-part structure that was later developed in the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed.  After almost nineteen centuries, we can recognize our faith in Irenaeus’ version of the Rule:

And this is the drawing-up of our faith, the foundation of the building, and the consolidation of a way of life.  God the Father, uncreated, beyond grasp, invisible, one God and maker of all; this is the first and foremost article of our faith. But the second article is the Word of God, the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was shown forth by the prophets according to the design of prophesy and according to the manner in which the Father disposed; and through Him were made all things whatsoever. He also, in the end of times, for the recapitulation of all things, is become a man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and bring to light life, and bring about the communion of God and man. And the third article is the Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied and the patriarchs were taught about God and the just led in the path of justice, and who in the end of times has been poured forth in a new manner upon humanity over all the earth renewing man to God.[5]

The rule of faith was central expressed the gospel received from the apostolic witness, passed on through subsequent generations, and proclaimed in the church. It did not deal with every element of faith and it did not answer every question; it expressed the core of Christian faith, rehearsing the indispensable elements that make Christian faith what it is. A generation after Irenaeus, Tertullian followed his own rendition of the rule with the counsel that “provided the essence of the rule is not disturbed, you may seek and discuss as much as you like.”[6]

Irenaeus, Tertullian, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and others who struggled against false teaching drew the contrast between the church’s enduring, commonly held tradition––the heart of Christian faith––and the unprecedented speculations of the heretics. One of Irenaeus’ critical strategies was to mock the heretics for their disregard of the church’s received tradition in their unseemly rush to outdo one another in devising something original and innovative. Irenaeus derisively notes, “Each one of them, as far as he is able, thinks up every day something more novel … those of them who are acknowledged as the more modern endeavor to excogitate something new every day and to produce something that no one has ever thought of.”[7] Irenaeus’s reason for resisting novelties had nothing to do with a conservative fondness for stability, an antiquarian attraction to things from the past, or a fussy interest in scholastic precision.  Irenaeus’s concern was pastoral: He understood that knowing the truth about God and ourselves was vital if persons were to live fully within the good news of redemption.  He knew that the corrosive effects of pagan culture could be resisted only through the reception of new life in the grace of the one triune God. The rule of faith’s defense against speculative innovation was, first, essential to the well-being of people.  This pastoral purpose was made explicit in the Nicene Creed’s formal articulation of the rule, where the truth of the gospel is framed by the declaration that it is all “for us and for our salvation … For our sake …”     

Chronological Snobbery

Irenaeus confidently contrasted enduring truth with rash error, but we are less sure of our capacity to distinguish truth from heresy. Although we certainly do not wish to be counted among the heretics, we may make a somewhat more modest version of the heretics’ mistake by turning our back on the seemingly tedious past as we search for something new, intriguing, exhilarating. Our desire for originality even results in snubbing what was considered “new” in Christian thought and life bare decades ago. Perhaps we are guilty of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[8] Twentieth century theologians are now buried with those of previous centuries in the “history of doctrine” graveyard as we look eagerly for the latest proposal in “constructive” theology. Do we really imagine that the issues and problems we face are unique to our time and place? Do we truly believe that our thoughts and actions are at the pinnacle of human achievement, superior to all that has preceded us? Do we actually think that those who have lived and died the faith before us have nothing to tell us? 

If we recognize the arrogance of ignoring the voices of our forebears, we may also realize that we have subjected ourselves to unseen limitations that diminish our capacity to know what is true. Our time is a period in time, just like all other eras; our place in history has horizons, just like all other locations. And so, like all places in all periods in time, we have a distinct outlook. We are able to see certain things quite clearly, but we are also blind to some things that people in other times and places saw in sharp focus. Lewis notes that

We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of [our] century––the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”––lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement.”[9]

We may be able to detect the illusions of the past, but our own characteristic illusions go unnoticed, lurking in the shared assumptions we take for granted.   

Contemporary Christians take for granted a wide range of convictions about God. We live in a culture, and a church, that assumes God’s benevolence. We are certain that, like Mister Rogers, God likes us “just the way we are.” We believe fervently that God is love––accepting, welcoming, hospitable, forgiving love. We are confident that God can be counted on to approve of us, for God understands that we try to be good people. When we slip up, God is always ready to forgive and to give us what we need to improve our lives. Our certainty that God loves us is reinforced by the hymns and praise songs we sing, the sermons we hear in church and on television, the popular media we enjoy, and the devotional literature we read. Confident of God’s benevolent care, we are grateful that we have progressed beyond a remote, austere image of God, such as the one in the seventeenth century Westminster Confession that describes God as “infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty; most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will …”[10]

Westminster’s vision of God seems too severe; we much prefer to think of our God in the words of the late twentieth century’s A Brief Statement of Faith:

We trust in God, whom Jesus called Abba, Father. In sovereign love, God created the world good and makes everyone equally in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people, to live as one community. But we rebel against God; we hide from our Creator … Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation. In everlasting love, the God of Abraham and Sarah chose a covenant people to bless all families of the earth. Hearing their cry, God delivered the children of Israel from the house of bondage. Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.[11]

When we hear the words of Westminster, we wonder, “How could they have thought that?” How could the “Westminster Divines” have painted such a somber picture of God?  Didn’t they know what we know about the everlasting love of God that will not forsake us, always welcomes us, and constantly develops our potential? Were they blind to the love of God? Actually, they were not blind, for the Westminster Confession of Faith does not stop with words about God’s transcendent power. It goes on to affirm that God is “most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”[12] Although its seventeenth century mode of expression is different from our preferred way of speaking, Westminster appears to give a fuller picture of God than does A Brief Statement of Faith.  The Westminster Divines might well ask of us, “How could you think only that? Where in your articulation of God’s love is there a clear sense of God’s sovereign majesty, God’s holy transcendence, God’s eternal reign over all time and space? Have you no sense that God’s love requires much of you and judges your departures from His ways of love? Where is your sense of holy awe?”

Questioned by Westminster, we may be able to hear more clearly the biblical witness that God is both loving and awe-inspiring, both forgiving and challenging. The psalmist understood: “I sing your love all my days, Lord, your faithfulness, from age to age.  I know your love is unending, your fidelity outlasts the heavens” (Psalm 89:1-2) and “Great and dreaded God, you strike terror among the holy ones. Who is like you, Lord of might, clothed in truth, a God of power” (vv. 8-9). Paul understood: “I am convinced that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39) and “How unsearchable are [God’s] judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (11:33). Westminster may enable us to understand that the one who is “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation” (2 Corinthians 1:3) will also require us to “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (5:10). The point here is not that the Westminster Confession of Faith has it all right or that A Brief Statement of Faith is hopelessly inadequate. Both Westminster and A Brief Statement represent a particular context, and each contains particular insights that the other may not fully appreciate. We may say to Westminster that, while its articulation of God’s love is technically true, its abstract language conceals the rich depth of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit that is captured in the more biblical language of A Brief Statement of Faith. We may also be able to thank Westminster for bringing to light our neglect of the scriptural witness to God’s transcendent holiness.  Without the awe of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, our understanding of God’s love can easily become domesticated, reduced to a trivial expression of sentimental affection.  While retaining the insight of A Brief Statement of Faith, we can open our ears to hear the voices of our forebears in faith, and thereby deepen our understanding of who God really is.

Voices Long Silenced

Tradition, the living faith of those who have gone before us, need not be a weight that must be shed to live free and faithful in Christ. Tradition can be liberating, freeing us from captivity to the limited perspective of our time and place. Without the capacity to transcend the taken-for-granted assumptions of twenty-first-century North America, we become prisoners in the tiny cell of “here and now.” Ignoring the church’s tradition because we fear that the past may oppress us only subjects us to the tyranny of the present. A Brief Statement of Faith calls upon the church “to hear the voices of peoples long silenced.”[13] Among the long-silenced voices we need to hear are the voices of all who have gone before us in the living of Christian faith.

Attending to the Reformed tradition, we recognize that our forebears have something to say to us, and that we have something to learn from them. It provides us with conversation partners who can help us to ask questions that might not occur to us, and who can suggest answers that expand our possibilities. The Reformed tradition is not an authority to be accepted simply because it precedes us, or because we may be part of a denomination that claims its heritage. We do not substitute Calvin, or the confessions, or pronounce­ments of general as­sem-blies and synods for the witness of the Scrip­tures. In fact, we measure their words by their fidelity to the Bible.  Nevertheless, we listen to their words in the expec­tation that we will be guided, led, and instructed by their attempts to bear witness to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.

Feminist theologians and scholars from racial ethnic communities within the church understand the necessity of probing the tradi­tion.  “If tradition is the still living and evolving past used to shape the future,” says Letty Russell, “the question immedi­ately arises, What if you do not have a past?”[14] The unpleasant reality is that the central role of women in the church and the vitality of racial ethnic communities of faith often have been ignored by the dominant tradition. Racial ethnic and women thinkers understand the dangers that come with the loss of their traditions and the need to reclaim what has been concealed.  “Awareness of their own history and struggles is frequently nonexistent among women as a group,” says Russell. “Yet it is toward such a search for a usable history that they must turn to build a still living and evolving past in order to shape their future as partners in society.”[15] Gayraud Wilmore notes, “On the basis of the meaning of Black presence within the denomination and American Christianity as a whole, Black Presbyterians need to make a choice about whether they intend to carry on and enhance the tradition, or abandon it to the archives.”[16] Recovering the pasts of women and racial ethnic communities (as well as recovering the reality of their suppression) is vital––not only for these groups, but for the enrichment of the whole church. There are times when enrichment comes in the form of rebuke that can lead to repentance of a deeply flawed past. South African theologian Allan Boesak reminds us that the evil system of apartheid was based on Christian principles! He lays bare the reality that “Apartheid was born out of the Reformed tradition … It is Reformed Christians who have split the church on the basis of race and color.”[17] When A Brief Statement of Faith calls upon the church “to hear the voices of peoples long silenced” it also has in mind those who were consigned to the margins of the church’s life. Among the long-silenced voices we are to hear are the voices of all who have gone before us in the life of Christian faith.

The Circle of Faith

Calvin was one of the principal leaders of the sixteenth century Reformation, but he did not discard the entire life and faith of the church that had preceded him. Reply­ing to the charge that Reforma­tion teaching was a departure from church tradition, Calvin readily acknowledged that “the ancient fathers” [the tradition of the early centuries of the church] wrote “many wise and excellent things.”  But, Calvin continued, “so-called pious children of theirs … worship only the faults and errors of the fathers. The good things that these fathers have written they either do not notice, or mis­represent or pervert.”[18] For Calvin, the Christian tradition contained both “faults and errors” and “good things.”  Throughout his own thinking of the faith, Calvin took notice of the tradition of the church, receiving from it many wise and excel­lent things.  Calvin was also clear that even good things from the tradition were there “to serve us, not to lord it over us.”[19]

Christian tradition––including John Calvin––must not lord it over us. Christian tradition––including John Calvin––can serve us. As we listen to the questions and insights and answers of our forebears we hear questions we never thought to ask, insights we never imagined, and answers that never occurred to us. Our response to the questions, insights, and answers of our predeces­sors must be receptive, but also probing and evaluative. How else can we distinguish between “faults and errors” and “wise and excellent things”? Our critique of tradition is not based on our own presuppositions and perspectives, but on Scrip­ture, which nourishes us as it nourished our forebears. Boesak was rightly critical of the faults and errors of the Reformed tradition, but he was also grateful for the tradition’s good things.  His indictment of the Reformed approval of apartheid was accompanied by his conviction that “in true Reformed theology … the recognition of the broken, sinful reality of our world becomes the impulse toward reformation and healing.[20]

What Jaroslav Pelican calls traditionalism is marked by the compulsion “to give a re-statement to that great system which is known as the Reformed Faith or Calvinism, and to show that this is beyond all doubt the teaching of the Bible and of reason.[21] On the other hand, a truly Reformed understanding of the tradition is evidenced by Jeanne d’Albret, a sixteenth century leader of the Refor­med Church in France, who wrote to her cousin, the Cardinal d’Armagnac, “I follow Beza, Calvin, and others only in so far as they follow Scrip­ture.”[22] No element of the Christian tradition may simply be taken for granted. None should be appropriated just because it is ancient or venerable. Each must be assessed by the standard of the original, formative witness of Scripture.  Like Jeanne d’Albret, we can appraise our forebears and our contemporaries by the standard of the Scriptures, following them as they are faithful to the biblical witness.

A naïve confidence in “progress” may have conditioned some of us to view the past as a series of deficient steps on the way to the pinnacle of modern wisdom. Elements of our inheritance even encourage this perspective. The Cru­sades, justifications of slavery, the Inquisition, denigr­ation of women, and other errors are parts of the Christian tradition we wish to put behind us; we believe we have progressed beyond that. Others of us, in despair about the sad history of the church, may be tempted to leapfrog backward to a presumed golden age of the church, whether the New Testament era, the Reformation, or the 1950’s. Neither romanticism about the present nor nostalgia for the past is true to historical and theological reality. Was the Spirit present and active in the early church, only to abandon succeed­ing generations of Christians to their own flawed devices? Did the Spirit sit on the sidelines of centuries of church life until becoming present and active in our time?

We stand in lively continuity with a living tradition. We cannot push our forebears aside as we stride back to the days of a pure church. Nor can we stand with our backs to our forebears, ignor­ing them as we press toward a more enlightened future. Rather, we sit in a circle with Ignatius and Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, St. Francis and Luther, Calvin and Schleiermacher, Abraham Kuyper and Reinhold Niebuhr, Rachel Henderlite and Karl Barth, Edward Schillebeeckx and Leanne Van Dyk, along with countless anonymous disciples. Jesus Christ is at the center of our circle; our conversation with one another is about God with us, about the story of God’s Way in the world. As contemporary members of the circle, we may speak scath­ing words to the corrupt Innocent VIII, quarrel with Calvin about predes­tination, and address skeptical questions to Barth. Yet we will also hear Luther rail against the Babylonian captivity of the church, be challenged by Schlei­ermacher’s attempts to reach the “cultured despisers” of re­ligion, face up to Calvin’s ap­praisal of human sin, and wrestle with Elizabeth Johnson’s proposals for language about God.  As we sit in the circle of tradition, we are neither immodest judges nor submissive devotees. We are, with those who have gone before us, women and men who strive to know the way and the truth and the life, Jesus Christ, in whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19). 

Not every Christian must study the history of the medieval church, master Calvin’s Institutes, read Schleiermacher, or cope with Schillebeeckx (although some should, particularly min­isters). The church’s tradition is not limited to intellec­tual history, and scholarship is not our only means of access to the tradition. We stand within a Reformed tradition that has shaped our forms of ministry (min­isters of the Word and Sacra­ments, elders, and deacons); the way we govern our common life (consistories/ses­sions, classes/presbyteries, synods/conferences, and general synods/assemblies); our worship (the Genevan Psalter, the Westminster Directory for Worship, the Book of Common Worship); and the trajectory of our mission (Calvin, the Netherlands, Hudson River Dutch and New England Puritans, the Great Awakenings in America, The Confession of 1967).  Nothing in the history of the church’s faith and life is the epitome of fidelity to the gospel, a pattern to be repeated endlessly. Yet the heritage of the church’s faith and life must not be ignored, for it is the path by which we arrived at our present place. We are more likely to stay on the right paths if we know where we’ve been.

We smile at the witticism: The seven last words of the church are “We’ve never done it that way before.” It’s true enough that we get stuck in our ways (even when “the way it’s always been done” was an innovation a mere fifteen years ago). Enthusiasm for new ways is not necessarily more faithful than reliance on old ways.  Both the faith and life of past generations and new departures in faith and life must be subject to thoughtful critique, assessing the extent of their fidelity to God’s Way as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Once we lay aside uncritical devotion to the old and uncritical enthusiasm for the new, we will discover that the promise of Jesus is sure: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12–13).

Teach Your Children Well

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away” (Deuteronomy 6:4–7). For Israel, and for the church, the Way of God is not an impersonal memory, but a living reality. How is this living reality kept alive in the community of faith? The presence of God, love for God, and fidelity to God’s Way in the world are not self-evident truths that will be received and believed by everyone.

Our children are no more likely to incorporate our faith than they are to follow in our occupational footsteps or duplicate our political views. They do not believe precisely what we believe; they may not believe at all.  In fact, that seems to be what has happened over the past fifty years.  Sociological studies of mainline churches in general and the Presbyterian Church in particular demonstrate that much of the staggering membership losses during recent decades are the result of a steady exodus from the church of the church’s children.  For too many children of believers, baptism, Sunday school, and confirmation lead not to faithful discipleship within the body of Christ, but to effortless departure from the community of faith. One hundred years ago Christians sang confidently:

We’ve a story to tell to the nations, That shall turn their hearts to the right, A story of truth and mercy, A story of peace and light… [23]

Congregations that use newer hymnals no longer sing that hymn, perhaps because we are unsure that we have a story to tell to our children, let alone the nations. Or perhaps, against all evidence, we hope that the Christian story is self-evidently part of the fabric of American life and so will be absorbed by cultural osmosis.

Unless the community of faith has coherent convictions, shared beliefs, and common ways of being in the world, it will lack the identity necessary to differentiate it from the surrounding culture. The Christian community is not called to be a quaint religious ghetto in the midst of “secular humanism.” Neither can the Christian community be content with communal and personal existence that is indistinguishable from the rest of the culture. “The culture” does not refer to opera, ballet, and art galleries, but is simply shorthand for cus­tomary social structures of meaning, ways of thinking and being that are integral to a society and its people.  Over a generation ago, H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture set forth the en­during Christian problem of the relationship between church and culture.[24] Is the church pitted against a hostile culture? At home in a friendly culture?  Serenely transcendent over culture? Separated from culture as a distinct “kingdom”? Or is the church the transformer of culture?  Niebuhr was convinced that the culture is not an evil to be avoided or a patron to be embraced, that the church does not live in the heights above culture or in a realm distinct from the culture. Niebuhr thought that culture, as part of God’s good but fallen creation, is to be transformed, converted, and brought into closer coherence with God’s Way in the world.

Yet, today, an increasing number of Christians suspect that the culture has transformed the church!  Has the church bought wholesale the assumptions, approaches, and values of North American culture, losing touch with the distinctive beliefs and practices of Christian faith and life? The American church’s accommodation to the culture is not as gross as Christian capitulation to Nazi ideology or as petty as dancing and card playing.  It is more insidious, though, for we may not even notice that anything is at stake.  As a church, and as members of the body of Christ, we simply accept “the way things are” without imagining that Christian faith gives us an alternative way of looking at the world. 

For more than three decades many American denominations have been preoccupied with interminable debates about two major moral issues, abortion and homosexuality. Poll results show that the views of Christians on these two issues mirror the views of the American population at large. There is little distinction between the range of Christian views and the span of opinion in American society generally, and the disagreements among Christians follow the lines of our society’s differences.  Furthermore, as the culture’s views shift, so do the views of church members.  Similarly, the church’s concern for poverty, the environment, and race follow the culture’s trajectories, with church discussion of these issues little more than mildly religious versions of social discourse. Does the Christian community have nothing to say about abortion and homosexuality that is different from the range of views within American culture? Do Christians have no distinctive contribution to offer on developing discussions about care for the earth? The church/culture question is not confined to large social issues. Our culture’s impact on the church may also be felt in easy Christian acquiescence to the norms of a consumer-oriented market economy. Are Christian congregations called to be full-service providers of religious goods and services? Should Christian denominations identify their market, brand themselves, and engage in media advertizing? Do effective management models really define the shape of Christian ministry? The point is not to assert that there is the Christian position on large social issues, or that there is one right way to relate to broad social norms.  It is only to suggest that when the Christian community has nothing to say that is different from the culture, no ways of living together that are different from the culture, it should not be surprised when its children abandon worship for Sundays at the mall.

Our tradition provides us with the wisdom of sisters and brothers who have preceded us in Christian living.  Their convictions, forms of piety, and mission in the world cannot be adopted unchanged. Neither can they be ignored if we are to be faithful to the God who is Lord of all times and places. The Christian tradition, deep and wide, nourishes possibilities for faithfulness that will help us develop the knowledge of God and of ourselves that is true and sound wisdom for us and for our children. 

From To Be Reformed: Living the Tradition by Joseph D. Small. ©2010. Used by permission of Witherspoon Press, 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, Kentucky.

[1] Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York: Penguin, 1981), 22.

[2] Gore Vidal, The Golden Age (New York: Vintage, 2000), 445.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 65.

[4] Douglas John Hall, Bound and Free: A Theologian’s Journey (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 73.

[5] Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, ¶3, trans. Joseph P. Smith.  Ancient Christian Writers, No. 16 (New York: Paulist Press, 1952), 49.

[6] Tertullian, “Prescriptions Against Heretics,” ¶14, Early Latin Theology, ed. S.L. Greenslade (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 40.

[7] Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, I.18.1; I.21.5 trans. Dominic J. Unger & John J. Dillon.  Ancient Christian Writers, No. 55 (New York: Newman Press, 1992), 72; 80.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 207.

[9] C.S. Lewis, Introduction to St. Athanasius on the Incarnation (London: A.R. Mowbray, 1953), 5.

[10] The Westminster Confession of Faith, The Book of Confessions (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2002), 6.011.

[11] A Brief Statement of Faith, in The Book of Confessions, 10.3.

[12] A Brief Statement of Faith, in The Book of Confessions, 10.3.

[13] A Brief Statement of Faith, in The Book of Confessions, 10.4.

[14] Letty M. Russell, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective––A Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1974), 80.

[15] Russell, Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective, 81.

[16] Gayraud S. Wilmore, Black and Presbyterian: The Heritage and the Hope (Philadelphia: Geneva, 1983), 90.

[17] Allan Boesak, Black and Reformed: Apartheid, Liberation and the Calvinist Tradition (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1984), 85f.

[18] John Calvin, “Prefatory Address to King Francis,” Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 18. Hereafter cited, “Address to King Francis.”

[19] Calvin, “Address to King Francis,” 18.

[20] Boesak, Black and Reformed, 90.

[21] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932), 1.

[22] Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1973), 61.

[23] “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” The Hymnbook (Richmond, Philadelphia, New York, 1955) Hymn 504.

[24] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951).

Joseph D. Small
Joseph D. Small
The Reverend Joseph D. Small has served as pastor, was the former director of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Office of Theology and Worship, and now serves as a consultant to the Presbyterian Foundation.


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