I was listening to a debate online the other day. One of the debaters was confronted by his opponent who said that he was not being faithful to the Biblical text, by relying on his tradition’s understanding of Scripture. The debater responded that he did not have a tradition and that he interprets the Bible according to what it plainly says. This is the standard response many Christians have when confronted by, or shown, contrary evidence to a position that they hold.
A friend of mine recently finished a distance online theological studies course. The course lasted two years and the scope of the study was focused on one particular book. I heartily approve of people who pursue deeper theological knowledge in order to deepen their own faith and to help others so I was glad when my friend finished the course. There is a slight danger though because when theology is shaped by one persons understanding of the Christian faith we should tread carefully. I encouraged this person to continue to study and to read books and material from outside her own tradition. Those who have gone before us provide the theological framework that we build upon, and this in turn shapes the traditions of our respective Christian groups. Now you may be thinking, “Not so fast! We’re Protestants and we only believe what the Bible says.” I’m glad you brought that up; let’s deal with it briefly.
If you are preparing a sermon do you use commentaries? As you prepare sermons or teaching lessons do you refer to extra material in order to understand the history and context of what you’re going to be teaching or preaching? Do you read Calvin, Luther, Owen, Henry, Hagin, Dake, Meyer, or Scofield to better understand the Scriptures? When you are doing that you are appealing to a specific tradition’s understanding of the text and underlying theology of the text. Congratulations! You are no longer just teaching what the Bible says you are appealing to an overarching tradition that you think best represents what you think Scripture actually says. Appealing to no tradition is just as much of a tradition as the tradition of a liturgical church and it has historical roots that can be traced to a specific point of origin. No one reads and interprets Scripture in a vacuum so to appeal to the plain literal reading of the Bible is to appeal to the tradition of the people who invented that framework.
This begs the question then is there a tradition that is better, or more accurate, then another? I would answer yes. For those of us who are Protestants we often do not realize our origins, nor do we always understand history, nor do we acknowledge the effect that history has had on the way we interpret the Bible (generally speaking). The longer I’m a Christian the more I think we should return to a tradition that is more informed by the church fathers then the narrow readings our modern traditions provide. For example, dispensationalism is only two hundred years old and it goes against a lot of what came before it. As such we can probably reject it as a system. I’m not saying there is no truth in dispensationalism, I’m saying that there may be a better tradition more grounded in history and the life of the church then a 19th century system that owes it origins to an English minister who saw things in the Bible and made connections that no one had ever made before. I’m not trying to trash dispensationalism nor am I saying they aren’t Christians but they do provide a clear example of my point: we all have traditions, we need to acknowledge them and be open to the realization that there just may be an ultimate one out there that shaped all of the others. Maybe we should seek it, and if we find it compare it with our own, the results may be surprising.