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Appreciating Tradition? A Lesson from Church History 101

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
-George Santayana

While I like learning history in general, the story of the church through the ages has especially captured my attention. I can remember in college taking church history courses as electives and sitting there furiously writing notes and listening as best I could, fascinated with how the church has become the church today. It always humors me when I hear others pshaw the past ignorantly celebrating the vain perception that their orthodox beliefs about God are completely self-originating. “All I believe is simply a product of the Bible and me,” they proclaim as if, like a duck’s feathers to water, their doctrine (and it’s development) is impervious to any penetration from sources and influences outside the Scripture.

Yeah, right…and I learned reading, writing and arithmetic from Day 1 because they’re so incredibly intuitive.

The truth is what we believe has been influenced greatly by those who have come before us. Dare I say, there is a place where tradition comes into play? Now before I’m raked over the coals and my Protestant card pulled, let me explain what I mean. The word tradition comes from the Latin tradit which means “to entrust” or “to hand down”. It’s the same word used in the Vulgate (the Latin-translated Bible) when Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:2, “…what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” In other words, “Hey Timothy, take the biblical, orthodox truth I shared with you and pass that down to others, and let those pass it down to the next generation, etc.” Tradition.

And church history is really about how faithful (or at times, how faithless) the church has been at handing down the traditions begun by Jesus and the apostles. Admittedly, talking about tradition tends to bug the Protestant in me, but my adverse reaction isn’t so much a response to tradition (if it’s simply the biblical truth being passed down in ways the church can learn and grow from it) but traditionalism. Traditionalism celebrates the form not the function, the husk not the heart, the ceremony for ceremony sake without any justification from God’s Word. Traditionalism sometimes makes tradition equal to Scripture, sometimes (in practice) over Scripture and sometimes departing from Scripture altogether. I have no stomach for traditionalism.

However, learning about tradition, at least in the 2 Timothy 2:2 sake, is something one will cherish as they study church history – how did the church keep its fidelity to Jesus and his Word throughout the centuries? The list is long of the those who faithfully carried the baton: Ignatius, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Athanasius, The Cappadocian Fathers, Ambrose, Leo, Augustine and so on. These men kept to the heart of 2 Timothy 2:2 by developing the traditions for the church which would keep her faithful to Jesus and the Gospel, things such as formulations on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and the Creeds (e.g., Nicene). These traditions were essential for the survival of a church continually attacked doctrinally from both outside and in.

Maybe that’s why I see church history as so important today. Once again the Church finds herself plagued with the enemies of orthodoxy (another word for biblical fidelity). It is amazing how much is passed off as solid, evangelical teaching only to be material which takes people further away from the God and Gospel revealed in the pages of Holy Writ. What’s the Church to do? I humbly suggest that a good step would be to reengage the study of church history, to reexamine the traditions handed down by the church fathers. I’d bet that most of the heretical and heterodoxical attacks we see today were dealt with by the Church well over a millennia ago. When I study early church history two things impress me: first is how brilliant and exacting these men were in formulating the biblical understanding of the issues of their day. Secondly, I was blown away with how the church fathers fastidiously appealed to the Scriptures to defend and articulate their position – which is a good thing if you’re arguing for orthodoxy!

Now that’s a tradition I can get behind.

P.S. – The genesis of this post comes from my completion last week of a wonderful little book on the history of the early church by Stephen J. Nichols entitled For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church. I highly recommend it for those who want a brief glimpse into what was going on in the Church during first four centuries after the apostles had passed away…and passed down their traditions. So take a chance and temporarily set aside a book enjoying its 15 minutes of evangelical fame for the story of those whose writings will demonstrate their relevance long after others have been forgotten.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

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