‘Authority Under the Word’: or, a Brief Thought on Why a Critical Attitude Ought to be Maintained Toward Tradition

In and of itself, tradition has zero normative force. Take the term ‘tradition’ to encompass things such as the ecumenical councils, received dogmas, things of that nature. These things have normative force only to the extent that they are correct and not in virtue of their status as tradition. Because the normative force derives from the correctness of tradition, it has to be shown that the tradition is in fact correct, and there cannot be a presumption of this correct-ness. This doesn’t mean an attitude of skepticism or suspicion towards tradition; it is helpful to think of tradition as our theological older brother/sister . We listen to them and to their wisdom before we say they are wrong, but we nonetheless validate what they say. In the case of tradition, this validation comes through exegesis and submission to the Word. One should not thumb their nose at the collective wisdom of the tradition: if one takes it to be the case that the tradition is wrong then it must be proved. However, to reiterate a point above, this does not mean that the presumption of correctness is on the side of tradition. Tradition can and has been wrong; there is no a priori reason to think that tradition ought to be given the benefit of the doubt simply because its status as tradition.


‘In honoring her theological progenitors, then, the theologian remains cognizant of two contrasting matters: that tradition is not revelation but is subject to the Word of God, and that the centuries of Christian reflection may not be leapt over in favor of a “pure” biblicism.’ (Darren Sumner, Karl Barth and the Incarnation, p. 185)


What tradition needs, in order to have a normative status, is correct-ness. There have to be reasons given for why tradition is correct, reasons that don’t themselves rely on the assumption of the correctness of tradition, and this involves the exegetical proving mentioned above. So. This is what ought to be the case: what are some reasons for thinking that this is, in fact, what ought to be the case?


The first, and perhaps most important reason for thinking that tradition is subject to the Word is that the Word precedes the tradition. Before the existence of the church (and therefore the existence of tradition) the Word already existed. A second reason is a decidedly historicist one: doctrines, dogmas and confessions are not eternal and unchanging but rather an insight in a particular moment in history; the problems that a particular creed or confession is directed against may not be our problems, as Barth notes:


‘It may well be that the false statements against which the confession was then and there directed are no longer or not yet familiar to the Church here and now in their original form, or at any rate in their actual significance.’ (C/D 1.2 p 633)


There is a danger in universalizing historically particular crises, problems or divisions; in doing so we are likely to conceptualize every new problem as a restatement of an old one, forcing it into a framework which is no longer relevant (ie, substance metaphysics). This takes away from the more practical authority that a creed or confession has; this is the kind of authority that, say, the more universal and ecumenical creeds have. The nearly universal adherence they have is just as subject to revision and reform as any other creed. In practice, however, their universal status does in fact give them a practical authority. Put differently: their authority is in the practical direction and content of the creeds and not in their form (how the content is expressed), and to universalize the form of the creed is to relegate it to a bleak kind of insignificance.


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