Series 1 Episode 5
Making Sense of Tradition
There’s this amazing teacher in the early church - St. Vincent of Lerins and he says that the problem of scripture is that: "Due to the depth of scripture, there are just as many interpretations as there are interpreters."
In other words – because scripture is so rich with meaning two people reading the same passage can end up thinking that it means two completely different things to the point where there are just as many interpretations of scripture as there are interpreters.
So St. Vincent establishes three criteria for using tradition as a guide for discerning doctrine.
The first is Universality (meaning everywhere)
Two ways to understand this term.
Does it apply to Christians regardless of geographical location? This was particularly important when the Church was divided geographically between the East and the West. The question was: do both parts of the church agree with what’s being said and does it apply to both of them?
The other thing “Universality” implied was simply a distinction between what was a “Christian” belief and what was a belief of a completely separate religion. That’s perhaps a little less helpful when it comes to trying to discern whether or not something was a true Christian doctrine. But it certainly helps reduce what’s on the table. According to universality we don’t need to spend time considering wicca or immersing ourselves in Bahai because these aren’t Christian doctrines. They’re not universal.
The next criteria is Antiquity (Always)
There’s two ways to understand this term as well
Has it always applied to Christians? Is this something that Christians have considered to be true regardless of the time period? And we don’t mean that there are no exceptions to the rule but rather we’re just looking for: What has the majority of the church always believed. For example the idea that speaking in tongues was required for salvation was a heresy that cropped up within the last 100 years or so. This doesn’t pass the test of antiquity. I would also imagine that something like Open Theism doesn’t pass the test of antiquity either.
The other way to understand this and perhaps the best way to understand “Antiquity” is simply this: preferring the ancient to the new. Early Christians wanted to know: what did my grandfather believe? Because what they were really asking was: What was taught by the disciples of the disciples? What used to be the understanding of this passage? They looked at new ideas with suspicion and we would be wise to do so as well. But we have to remember that what our parents and grandparents believe doesn’t pass the test of antiquity anymore. The question for us is… what did Christians believe 1900 years ago?
Consensus (By All)
This has two understandings as well.
One thing consensus means is: Have Christians generally accepted this view? In that sense it seems to have a lot of overlap between the last two criteria.
The second thing consensus meant to St Vincent of Lerins was: Can you find agreement between the teachers of the church? He actually admits that listening to all the doctrines of one church Father is a bad idea. He says each Church father has some unique views and they should be allowed come up with their own theories and philosophies concerning less important doctrines. So consensus then is not: what did one church Father say but rather: where did the majority of Church father’s agree.
There’s a few ways that you and I can look at Consensus today:
Ecumenical councils refer to these meetings where leaders from the entire Christian church would come together to discuss and formulate doctrine. The first council like this takes place in the book of Acts which becomes the example and the reason for hosting such councils in the first place. Then you have 7 ecumenical councils from the history of the church and in general about the first 4 are considered to be the most ecumenical and therefore some would say – the most authoritative.
Church Father’s writings
You can actually buy a complete works of the church fathers on amazon for about 4 dollars for the digital version. It’s an incredible library but the truth is it will be difficult to take the time to read everything and be able to fully understand what’s being said about what. There are also several books out there that will compile the writings of the church father’s around whatever doctrinal issue you’re exploring.
We can also look at various denominations to get an understanding of consensus within the church. And for me – here’s one example.
Catholics would say that Jesus is the bread and the wine
Lutheran would say that Jesus is in the bread and the wine
And most protestants would say that Jesus is “with the bread and the wine in a special way.”
Out of all of those views – the most ecumenical view is that Jesus is present in a special way. And so you can experience some common ground between Catholics, Lutherans, and other protestants because you’ve looked at the major understanding of the majority of Christianity and found where different positions have landed.
So that’s Universality, Antiquity, and Consensus. Also known as: Everywhere, Always, and By All. Although both of those are kind of hyperbolic names for those categories.
The next major contribution from St. Vincent of Lerins is an exploration of:
Does theology change over time? If so, How?
The answer is surprising: Yes theology changes. It doesn’t become something different though. It doesn’t negate itself. It doesn’t change it’s mind so to speak. Later doctrines don’t disagree or contradict future doctrines. Instead theology changes by developing. That’s a much better word for it. Theology grows and develops. St. Vincent says to think of a human body. I’ve gotten bigger, my proportions are different, but for the most part everything that you see now was here when I was younger. Some of it was dormant but most of it completely visible. Everything was predictable. If I grew a tail, or wings, or a tumor – we would know something was out of place. The same ought to be true for theology.
So yes - It grows and matures but nothing new appears except that which was already there beneath the surface.
So for example in the Old Testament you have One God. That never changes but it does develop. In the New Testament you have One God in three persons. Our understanding has grown and the doctrine developed but it doesn’t contradict.
Wesley wrote that it is generally supposed that traditional evidence is weakened by length of time, as it must necessarily pass through so many hands. Wesley insisted: "Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour. It is highly serviceable in its kind, and in its degree". Wesley states that those of strong and clear understanding should be aware of its full force. For him it supplies a link through 1,700 years of history with Jesus and the apostles.
At one point Wesley categorized his faith as being truly “primitive” and apostolic. For him, primitive had good connotations because he was referring to having a faith and understanding reflective of the early church fathers. Now it’s time for my favorite part of this class: a Spectrum of belief about tradition from various groups claiming Christianity.
These two concepts are the most important for us to wrap our heads around when it comes to “how to discern doctrine.” For me they’re the two most important and most authoritative sources of truth: Scripture and church authority. Don’t get me wrong – scripture is always the foundation. As Paul said
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God's curse!
Church authority – and the other parts of the quadrilateral – reason and experience are used to support our understanding of scripture. They help us flesh out scripture. They’re tools that we use to better understand scripture.
Let’s finish by examining the rest of the quadrilateral – Experience and Reason.
Wesley’s once said: "What the scriptures promise, I enjoy". For Wesley, Experience always alluded to the Holy Spirit filled life of the Christian. It’s experience, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. And so Wesley thought that we should be experiencing scripture and using our experiences to understand scripture better. It’s the picture of the understanding of the the blind man being questioned by pharisees about Christ and he responds “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don't know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!" (John 9:25)
I’m reminded of the song “The mystery” by Rhett Walker band where the lyrics say Well maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m free I just know I ain’t the man that I used to be.”
So we know that God frees us from sin and transforms our lives because we experience it or because we trust others when they say they’ve experienced it.
Wesley wrote: "Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles". He states quite clearly that without reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. And as we recognize we’ve been using reason the entire time we’ve engaged with theology.
A great question, I think for us to ponder is: What’s Missing from the quadrilateral?
Creation – scripture says that because there is a creation everyone is responsible for recognizing that there is a creator. So creation itself is a source of truth that’s accessible to all. We must wonder if there’s anything else it can teach us about God.
The 5 senses – Consider Doubting Thomas who wants to feel the resurrected Christ’s wounds to know that He is real. Jesus eats and drinks with His disciples. And perhaps of course we could also say these are summed up by “experience.
Moral Compass – I appreciate the work that C.S. Lewis has done in using mankind’s notion of morality to provide evidence for the idea that there has to be some standard of morality that exists outside of ourselves.
What else do you think is missing that you might use to discern doctrine? Or perhaps… what are some things that you’ve been guilty of using to discern doctrine that might not be great tools? I think if we’re honest a lot of us are shaped by culture or by short-sighted Christianity. We see the last 20 years of Christian thought but forget about the rest of it.
Thanks for watching, thanks for listening, As always, I hope you’ve learned something. Please check out our next series as we discuss God’s nature, God’s Personhood, and God’s attributes.