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More from Alden Swan

Swan has some interesting things to say on the relationship between post-Reformation church and Modernism, as well as the question of by which authority we not only interpret Scripture, but by which authority we determine the canon of Scripture.

For example:

One of the most irritating qualities of Modernism is the almost essential arrogance that comes from the belief in progress; that is, that “new” is better than “old.” Evangelicalism seems to exhibit the same tendency to believe in theological “progress,” as well as the resulting sense of arrogance in how they deal with past theological positions. While many would argue, especially in the case of fundamentalists, that this is absurd, I think in the “big picture” it makes sense.

With Evangelicalism, there are some basic presumptions that may not be true. One such presumption is that it is an advancement to think of theology almost as a science, being able to break large concepts down into minute detail and argue over the fine points. This scientific approach has, as Webber points out, reduced theology to a set of facts or propositions which can – and must – be believed. This systematic approach appears to have a goal of eradicating any sort of mystery from theology, believing that we can reason our way through our faith. Our faith (as Webber also points out) can then conceivably be conveyed to others in a logical, reasoned way, what we think of a “apologetics.” Evangelicals reason their way to truth, whereas the reformers simply proclaimed it.

To restate one of his points, Christianity is reduced by this approach to an ideology and a philosophy, rather than a means by which the faithful live their lives. By believing we can simply reason our way through our faith, the opposite has been greatly enabled–one can also very easily reason one’s way right out of their faith, too. I recall no examples from Acts or the Epistles of anybody coming to Christianity through a well-reasoned argument. Truth is a Person whom we meet in Christianity, not a set of precepts. To put it another way, it is not the case that the more one knows about God, the closer one is to God.

I would also tweak his last sentence–the reformers proclaimed the truth which they believed they had found while rejecting the truth which they had received. To understand what I mean by this, it is necessary to jettison the baggage most of us have with the word “tradition”, that it means “we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way and we don’t have a better answer than that”, as typified popularly everywhere from Fiddler on the Roof (a humorous example) to the Shirley Jackson short story “The Lottery” (a horrifying example). It is a given that “tradition” is used in both a positive and negative light in Scripture; there is of course the admonition about “traditions of men” but then also there is 2 Thess 2:15, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our epistle” (compare to 2 Tim 1:13–“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus”) and 2 Thess 3:6, a reference to “the tradition which you received from us”. The Greek word here is παράδοσις paradosis, derived from the verb παραδίδωμι paradidomi, “to hand over, to transmit”. So, literally, παράδοσις is “that which is handed down” or “that which is handed over”. “Tradition” is simply the Latinate form of the same word; it is from “traditus”, the perfect passive participle of “tradere”, “to hand over”.

So what was passed down? “The faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). “Delivered” in Greek here is again a form of παραδίδωμι, so this is the faith once “traditioned” to the saints. That faith is “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and the apostles had been told that the Holy Spirit, “the Spirit of truth”, “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13), that truth of the which the Church is “the pillar and ground” (1 Tim 3:15).

Tradition, therefore, is the truth, it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Church which is both Body and Bride of Christ, Christ who is Himself the Truth. Tradition is not what we do because we’ve always done it and don’t have a better reason, but rather it is the the faith once “traditioned.”

So, from this perspective, the Reformers rejected that which had been “traditioned” to them while proclaiming what they believed to have been the truth they found, rather than received, by narrowing the list of acceptable sources.

By contrast, what we might generally refer to as “the catholic tradition” proclaims the truth which it receives. I don’t mean for that to sound arrogant (although it inevitably will); rather, that’s what the Greek Orthodox priest to whom Swan was speaking meant when he said that, on the inerrancy of Scripture, “we don’t think that way…we’ve just never questioned it.”

Still, there’s more of a context to his statement than just that, which brings me to Swan’s other piece:

As I think I’ve mentioned before, it is interesting to note that based on what we read in the New Testament, the “Word of God” does not seem limited to anything which was written down, and in fact, seems to speak of oral testimony.

Exactly, per 2 Thess 2:15, as quoted above. This again gets to the heart of the what the priest was saying–the New Testament is a witness to the tradition, to the authority, to the life of the Church already ongoing, not the instruction manual and not the source itself. More specifically, the Gospels and the Epistles are the Truth proclaimed and witnessed to in community–that is, liturgically, since they were written to be read to the assembly when they had gathered. To remove Scripture from this context and try to make it its own discrete source of authority is to obscure its meaning and reduce its authority, not to clarify it.

To relate this to an earlier point, Christianity is not a philosophy derived from a text, it is new life through an encounter with a Person who is the Truth. By being reduced to adherence to a set of precepts found in a text without the continuity of the life of the Church which has been ongoing since Pentecost, Christianity has been severely weakened.

What St. Ignatius wrote to the Philadelphians comes to mind: “When I heard some say, ‘Unless I find it in the official records–in the Gospel I do not believe’; and when I answered them, ‘It is in the Scriptures,’ they retorted: ‘That is just the point at issue.’ But to me the official record is Jesus Christ; the inviolable record is His Cross and His death and His Resurrection and the faith of which He is the Author.” The Scriptures witness to the Faith, not the other way around.

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