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4 April 2022

This article is aimed mainly at Christian leaders, educators and theologians. But I hope that as they are called to account, thoughtful Christians will also come to a deeper appreciation of the church and a higher expectation of its leadership.

Let us begin by defining the second of the two key terms in the title:

A tradition is an argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted [Alasdair Macintyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), p. 12].

A tradition is about the way a community, bound together by fundamental agreements or core values, engages with various challenges to its core values so that it can continue to develop and progress without changing its basic identity.

Now, for the other key term. In Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir (Eerdmans, 2010), Stanley Hauerwas recounts the tragic story of John Yoder who was disciplined by his Mennonite Church for his bizarre behaviour with women. According to Hauerwas, Yoder was ‘experimenting’ with new forms of sexual relationship besides marriage. The temptation to experiment with tradition reveals an inherent weakness in the Anabaptist tradition to which Yoder belonged. It is the consequence of rejecting the Church after Constantine when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. I think Yoder got the idea of tradition right but one vital part of the nature of tradition wrong.  It is this small but critical error which led Yoder to experiment with tradition and helps to explain his strange behaviour near the end of an illustrious career.

Hauerwas himself, unfortunately, seems to entertain a similar view of tradition. It shows up in his self-designation as a ‘high-church Mennonite’ and the description of his own situation as ‘ecclesiastically homeless’. He demonstrates his homelessness by moving through several denominations. In fact, at one time he was not attending church at all until a student challenged him about his inconsistency. Hauerwas has a strong concept of the church: ‘I am not even sure what I believe. I am much more interested in what the church believes.’ But this high ecclesiology is not expressed in faithfulness to one particular church except the one he happens to be attending at the time.

It is this ecclesiastical homelessness that may also explain why Hauerwas at times appears to be experimenting with tradition as seen in his overly sympathetic gestures towards the LGBTQ. For all the importance he places on the church, it seems that at this point it is the culture of the world that shapes his response. When one is not quite at home with Mother Church, one feels less constrained by her authoritative teachings.

The basic problem with Anabaptism is its trying to reinvent the church. But the church cannot be reinvented any more than tradition can be reinvented. Without some historical link to—yes, the Constantinian Church, there is no true tradition to talk about. As Alan Jacob of Wheaton College has rightly noted, a ‘do-it-yourself’ tradition is no tradition at all. Both Yoder and Hauerwas, I think, got most of the substance of the Christian tradition right, but there is an element in MacIntyre’s definition which they fail to take into serious account. It is the phrase ‘through time’. A tradition through time implies a history, and history implies that there is real connection between the church then and now. The link is not just between communities sharing similar ideas. Two separate communities may share the same ideas, but remain two separate communities, still.

Perhaps to put it more strongly, we should speak not only of historical continuity but of historical contiguity: there must be some actual contact of people and their shared ways of life from generation to generation. This is the significance of the laying on of hands in ordination and of sharing the eucharistic bread and wine with other local churches in ancient times. There is actual contact in the handing down of a tradition. Hands touch, something is given and received—that is what Christian tradition in its fullest sense is about.

A proper understanding of tradition will have ramifications for the future of the church in general and theological education in particular. We have encountered mature Christians and even theological students exposed to new ideas coming away shaken in their faith.

One could explain it as just a part of growing up. To some extent it is, but the history of theological education is full of examples of seminarians who never recovered from the shock. They ended up dismissing the faith which they once held dear, or they came away with a watered-down faith, or they dug their heels in and ended up as fighting fundamentalists!

The problem must be laid squarely on those who experiment with tradition. The clever scholars with a flair for novelty become the experimenters; they also become iconic, adored as trailblazers. But let us not forget this somber warning from an early church historian Eusebius: ‘Novelty is heresy.’

The problem is not so much with the novelty of ideas as the way they are handled. The bearers of the Tradition are both open-minded and dogmatic. Open-minded because the living Tradition is open to further development until the Eschaton, and dogmatic because it is grounded in a history with a given content from which they draw to build for the future.

What characterizes faithful teachers of the church is their sense of being in communion, i.e., in contiguity with prophets and apostles, church fathers and mothers, saints and martyrs, through the ages. This enables them to hand down the truth faithfully as well as engage boldly with new and challenging ideas.

Thoughtful Christians generally are not afraid of ideas that jolt them or even shatter their preconceived ideas; what they fear is to be left intellectually and spiritually stranded because their leaders show a lack of confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ, or display a blasé attitude towards things that ought to elicit seriousness and reverence.

If church leaders are confident about the things they believe in, it gives their followers the same assurance to do their part for the next generation. But when they lose confidence, they start to experiment with the Tradition.

Rev Dr Simon Chan (PhD, Cambridge) had taught theology and other related subjects such as liturgical, spiritual, and contextual theologies at Trinity Theological College for 29 years.