Tradition As Servant, Not Master

The Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of the Reformation I appreciate how Terry Johnson talks about tradition in his chapter on sola Scriptura (from his book, The Case for Traditional Protestantism).  It is important to remember that solo Scriptura (by Scripture alone) doesn’t mean we do not value or honor tradition at all.  Rather, it means that tradition is a useful servant, but not a lord or master.  (Note: I’ve edited this section a bit to keep it brief.)

“Tradition in the church can help preserve orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and prevent corruption.  Sure, some have elevated tradition to a status equal to that of Scripture.  Even among those who do not do so officially (as in  ‘Holy Tradition’), they may do so informally, refusing, ever, to change anything.  …That kind of traditionalism is wrong.  But there is a proper role for tradition…. We may refer to it as that of ‘witness.”

“So we honor tradition.  We consult the past.  We are not like the cults which claim that they have been the first to discover the truth.  We are slow to depart from our ancestors’ thoughts and ways.  We rely heavily upon their insights.”

“This, it seems to me, is the proper role of tradition.  It is a guide, a check, a safeguard, protecting the best of the past from the whims of the present.  It is never an end in itself or an authority in itself.  Tradition is always subordinate to Scripture.  But it has an important role to play.”

“What ought we to do, then, when we encounter a traditional practice? The simple answer is, Honor it.  Give honor to whom honor is due (Rom. 13:7).  Then ask, ‘Why is it there?  Why did they do this and prohibit that?’  Assume our forefathers had reasons and seek to understand why they thought their reasons were good.  Finally, depart from tradition only when the case to do so is compelling” (p. 33-34).

Terry Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism: The Solas of the Reformation.

shane lems

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