Friday, May 09, 2014

Truth and Tradition

“Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next whereunto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after this the Church succeedeth that which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” (Richard Hooker, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book 5.VIII.2)

When I was very young, a mere teenager, I had a good friend who was color-blind. It was during a very sunny afternoon that I, as a passenger in his car, saw how dangerous it is to dispense with an idea just because it is old. Stop lights, in case you have not noticed, are always lined up the same way from top to bottom. The red light at the top, the yellow light in the middle, and the green light at the bottom. Furthermore, they have long visors that cast enough of a shadow that even a very sunny day cannot hide which color light is on. But, some very clever person had managed to redesign the stop light. The ugly visors were gone, and the light was not hanging up and down, but sideways, horizontally. Because the light was horizontal my color-blind friend was becoming panicky- was the light green or red? He figured the middle was still the place where yellow would be, but what about the rest of it? He could not see green from red; and now he could not rely on the vertical system that all color-blind drivers have always used. But, I could not help him; because without the visors, on a sunny day, it was impossible for anyone, color-blind or not, to see which light was on. We escaped with our lives. Others were not so fortunate, and in a few accidents some people were killed.

The lesson is simple: Anyone who wants to change a tradition should be forced to answer a question, and forced to answer it correctly. Correctly, that is, instead of according to his prejudices, especially prejudices against things he thinks old fashioned. The question would be, why does the tradition exist? Why, for example, do we teach children to read using what is called phonics? An old idea, admittedly. All the more reason to keep it, since it is time tested and proven. For some reason we are being subjected quite a lot to new ideas which are still theoretical, still untried, still experimental and subject to failure, in preference to the tried and true. If the traffic light designer had been forced to answer why the lights hang vertically, and to answer why the visors are there- whether or not he finds them to be attractive- lives would have been spared.

So, remember that rule. No tradition should be overturned unless you know exactly why the tradition exists; and I mean the real reason why, not based on logic from an assumption, but based on logic built on fact. Furthermore, you had better be sure that your experiment is worth the abandonment of the tried and true, time tested and proven. You had better be very sure that your wisdom exceeds that of many generations and of their experiences.

The facts we must have as our foundation are revealed, because we believe in the revelation God has given. This revelation is recorded in Holy Scripture. The logic we use must be consistent with Right Reason and with the Church with her authority. These give us the collective mind of the Universal Church as to how the revelation should be understood. 

It is quite correct to use the word “Tradition” for the collective mind of the Church, and therefore the mind of Christ (I Cor. 2: 16), and in this way to understand part of Hooker’s meaning in the words, “the Church by her ecclesiastical authority.” Nonetheless, some of what might be called tradition is every bit as fleeting a matter of whim and fancy, based upon no certain warrant of Holy Scripture, such as "the Romish doctrine of purgatory." Jesus addressed this problem in His time on earth (Matt. 15:1f).

In recent years certain Anglicans have been made to feel inferior either to Rome or to Orthodoxy, and generally to a false notion that those two ancient communions have more agreement between themselves than, in fact, they really do. What can be said, accurately, is that they have long burdened themselves by doing the very opposite of what modern Episcopalians do. Modern Episcopalians replace tradition with "experience," thus creating a false basis for determining truth. But the two communions of Rome and Orthodoxy have confused genuine Tradition with man made doctrines and customs, making it difficult to sort out truth from error. What gets buried under the rubble is the Gospel in the fullness of its power. 

A great example of this is the 1870 innovation of Roman Catholicism called Papal Infallibility. As radical an innovation as women "priests" this "doctrinal development" charged into the future with no regard for the traditional understanding of the Universal Church (clearly and dogmatically expressed I might add). It was justified by use of Scripture, but use that was neither reasonable nor in accord with the actual Tradition of the ancient Church. 

Progressive departure from the Faith as once revealed (Jude 3) comes both from Newman's theory of Doctrinal Development and from modern liberal innovations. It may seem unfair to make that observation, and to equate these in any way; for it appears that the modern liberal innovators ignore the Bible, and the people who embrace Doctrinal development claim to have a scriptural basis for their new ideas, no matter how eisegesis they must stuff into the verses they quote (especially their unreasonable eisegesis poured into Matt. 16:18). But, in fact, the modern liberal innovators make the same claim. They claim to base their latest departures from sound theology and morality on the scriptures, citing carefully selected passages in light of pseudo-scholarship. 

I will stick to the Anglican way of learning truth; all sound doctrine is in the pages of the Bible, and was interpreted, taught and passed down by the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13) through the the faithfulness of the "the ancient catholic bishops and doctors." In that way we receive and teach the truth in accord with the authority and mind of the Church, based on the revelation God has given to her. Anything else is reinventing the wheel, perhaps as square, or redesigning a traffic light that gets people killed. 


AFS1970 said...

I had to laugh at the "parable of the traffic lights" as I remember my mother telling me that growing up in Massachusetts the lights were not in the same order. I don't remember if the red and yellow were reversed or the red and green were reversed but I know it was changed to be more like the rest of the country. As a child visiting family, there were still some intersections in Boston without walk lights, you had to wait for a dual red/yellow light to cross. That was changed because it was too confusing for tourists during the bicentennial.

So this thought brings up a question. At what point does something new become part of something old? When is an innovation no longer new and part of tradition? Is it ever such a thing? Can new traditions be made at any point?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The most important question is, what is it based on? Does it have continuity with the life of the Church and the truth we have received?