Pause for Thought: The Purpose of Tradition
The word ‘tradition’ is often associated with an uncritical conservativism—a means of avoiding the difficult work of carefully and creatively responding to our present circumstances by retreating to the settled beliefs and practices of the past. In the context of the Church, this usually means appealing back to some golden age when the Church ‘got it all right,’ whether that be the time of the New Testament Church, or the Reformation, or the previous vicar!
There are at least two problems with this line of thinking. Firstly, the Church has always been, and will always be (until the return of Christ in glory), a pilgrim people, a community ‘on its way.’ ‘What we will be has not yet been revealed,’ declares the author of 1 John (3:2). In other words, the Church is always a work in progress, striving in every generation for an ever-greater intimacy with Christ and a deeper share in his saving work (see Phil 3:10-12).
Secondly, tradition is not primarily about looking backwards but about ‘handing on,’ or, we might say, ‘paying it forward.’ Indeed, the word ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin tradere, meaning ‘to pass on’ or ‘transmit.’ For the Church, therefore, tradition is primarily about passing on the gift of new life in Jesus Christ. It is about connecting others to the source of our own forgiveness and wellbeing and equipping them to transmit that same gift to others.
We do this first and foremost by transmitting the good news of Jesus Christ, by telling and retelling the story of who Christ is and what he has accomplished. But we also put others into contact with Jesus through our forms of worship, through our rituals and disciplines, through the countless gestures, songs, and symbols that have shaped and sustained our lives in the direction of Christ.
The problem with tradition, Jesus insists, is when it becomes a means of self-justification, when we use it to establish our own superiority over others or to obscure our own need for further transformation (see Mk 7:1-13). As with most things related to the Christian life, the primary criteria for a ‘good’ tradition are the love of God and neighbour. Having freely received God’s love, it is our duty and our joy to transmit that love to others.
Revd Dr Jordan Hillebert