Theological Traditions

biblethumbAmerican evangelicals tend to dislike tradition. Perhaps this is due to the individualism of American culture or a response to the excessive trust Catholicism places in tradition. Whatever the reason, evangelicals tend to be soured towards tradition even though evangelicals hold many traditions themselves.

Every believer inherits conclusions about the meaning and application of Scripture from other believers. These conclusions are expressed in distinctive collections of beliefs and practices know as a traditions (e.g. evangelical, reformed, covenant, dispensational). Theologians cannot entirely separate their personal theological studies from their communities’ doctrinal positions. Moises Silva writes,

“The old advice that biblical students should try as much as possible to approach a text without a prior idea as to what it means (and that therefore commentaries should be read after, not before, the exegesis) does have the advantage of encouraging independent thinking; besides, it reminds us that our primary aim is indeed to discover the historical meaning and that we are always in danger of imposing our meaning on the text. Nevertheless, the advice is fundamentally flawed, because it is untrue to the very process of learning. I would suggest rather that a student who comes to a biblical passage with, say, a dispensationalist background, should attempt to make sense of the text assuming that dispensationalism is correct. I would go so far as to say that, upon encountering a detail that does not seem to fit the dispensationalist scheme, the student should try to “make it fit.” The purpose, of course, is not to mishandle the text, but to become self-conscious about what we all do anyway. The result should be increased sensitivity to those features of the text that disturb our interpretive framework and thus a greater readiness to modify that framework” (“Systematic Theology and the Apostle to the Gentiles,” Trinity Journal, new series 15 [Spring 1994]:26).

Tradition plays a key role in communicating doctrine from one believer to another. Christians are commanded to gather together and exhort one another (Heb 10:25). God uses tradition to perpetuate correct doctrine (2 Thes 3:6). However, since all tradition is human in origin, it will never escape the effects of the fall. We cannot assume that our beliefs and practices are correct just because we love and respect those who hold those positions. Of course, theological study must begin somewhere, and theologians will naturally assume their beliefs are correct anyway. Thus theologians ought to treat their communities’ traditions as provisionally correct and constantly critique their theological assumptions with Scripture.

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