My eyes unflinching from my computer screen, I confirmed I had read the words correctly. Yes, my grandfather had written that Church tradition is essential for believers. Inwardly, I protested: But, only the Bible is essential.
My grandfather was an evangelical missionary and missions scholar. At the time, I was reading an early draft of his manuscript amidst our months-long process to compile and refine his final book. Turn by turn, I read a carousal of his manuscript iterations and returned my reactions to him. I was lending what aid I could toward tuning his words to Millennial ears.
And, on this point of tradition, my grandfather had effectively lost me.
Given my proximity to him and the project, I responded—still too boldly, I realized in retrospect—that his perspective on tradition did not sound correct. I thought it stood to erode the prized position that the Bible, and the Bible alone, occupied in my mind. To consider any words but those of God in Scripture as essential was a prickly concept, course and rejectable as it attempted to broach my spirit.
Undoubtedly, he sensed that I recoiled over the matter. So, instead of responding to my concerns via email or phone—he lived over an hour away—we spoke in person. This kind of meeting, in my maternal family, is considered a soudan—a Japanese word enjoyed in our vernacular due to my grandparents’ early missionary ministry.
Joining us for this meeting in his living room were intricately carved Asian nesting tables, artwork of workers harvesting Japanese rice fields, ivory figurines in the curio cabinet, and a small number of other collectibles assumed into his possession during his years as a missionary. This meeting would be characteristic of what I had come to anticipate of visiting his home, of him, and especially of this project. I was about to hear thoughts I would collect to my mind, take to my life, and carry with me in times ahead.
At the start of our soudan, I sat across from him holding only my protests as he tottered in my mind between being biblical and unbiblical on this point of tradition. Yet, by the end of our meeting, I had shifted, seeing a need to slow my Millennial mind’s propensity toward forming snap judgments. Would I be willing to have my felt personal “expertise” on this matter of tradition confronted? Could I be persuadable, if offered a more biblical case than my own? Who, if not my grandfather, deserved this hearing from me? Could it be that I did not have enough information for the “unbiblical” assessment already stamped as “pending” in my mind?
In that meeting, and over the subsequent months of continued writing, reading, and responding, my grandfather received my protests into his consideration and provided response.
In We Evangelicals and Our Mission, he differentiates between “traditions of men” and the kind of tradition to which he refers—with the former being considered mere “inherited patterns of Church life” (120). Distinguishing between traditions that originate from men and the kind of theological tradition my grandfather viewed as essential smoothed, in my mind, some of the initial, roughened filigree over the concept. “Traditions of men”—as my grandfather puts it—need to be resubmitted to the Scriptures.
Photo credit: ©SparrowStock
Yet still, I thought: Doesn’t theological tradition compete with the Bible, if viewed as essential? My grandfather explains that with the Bible comes “true truth and undivided authority that forever attends the Word of God” (6). He describes how early church believers would have received and understood matters pertaining to learning the truth:
“With the completion of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus and his return to the Father, where did they find true doctrine and divine direction? Paul answers that question in large part when, addressing the church at Thessalonica, he admonished believers to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). The Christian Great Tradition begins with the inspiration and inscripturation of the Word of God and proceeds with its proclamation, dissemination and instruction” (5).
Tradition is a biblical, Pauline concept, I learned—and this tradition includes “proclamation, dissemination and instruction” of the scriptures. At this, I again protested: Okay, but with all of the disagreement I know to be in Church history, whose tradition is followed?
I had heard the terminology from him, “Great Tradition of Christian thinking.” It seems I was ready for a definition. My grandfather gives attention to scholar Thomas Oden’s treatment. Starting with a quote from Oden and concluding with my grandfather’s comments concerning his purposes in composing his final project:
“’All that is meant by tradition, then, is the faithful handing down from generation to generation of scripture interpretation consensually received worldwide and cross-culturally through two millennia.’ Oden’s phraseology is worth pondering—'scripture interpretation,’ ‘consensually received,’ ‘worldwide and cross-culturally,’ ‘handed down through two millennia.’ That is precisely what we are attempting to discover here, and it is not only good, it is ‘essential to evangelicalism’” (2-3).
This kind of tradition transcends denominational lines. The Great Tradition involves broad bodies of believers resubmitting themselves to the Bible amidst movements of the Holy Spirit. That is the essential tradition my grandfather further expounded upon in the pages of his book.
Seeing my pending viewpoint compromised by my grandfather’s clarifications, I started questioning my own practices concerning the reading of Scripture. What was my approach to determining what interpretation to believe as true?
Largely, I would appeal to my felt sense of God with a “me, Jesus, and my Bible” approach. That is, if my internal senses were flared when reading Scripture, I would assume I had heard from Him regarding the meaning of Scripture. I would, no less, communicate this “interpretive experience” with all conviction to my peers. The one with the strongest spiritual feelings when reading Scripture should have the most sway or be the one with most presumed maturity of understanding amidst group discussions, right?
I had already been appealing to an authority, was already inwardly assessing what was essential in order to believe any given interpretation of Scripture. Even though I had been to Bible school and knew how to employ exegetical tools, I realized that my approach was still heavy with the individualistic venture afore described, not the Great Tradition of which my grandfather spoke.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Sarah Noltner
While having my thought challenged by these new, better bounds, I was also losing my grandfather in this life as we were concluding our work on his book. The anticipation of this loss had once alarmed me with a manner of spiritual fear as I imagined a shallowing of my perspective on the Lord without his insights. He was a favored resource, with Scriptural wisdom an email, call, or soudan away.
Today, while the loss of my grandfather remains felt, the absence is not productive of fear. For, he freed me of himself—to two millennia.
The final day I saw my grandfather—in this life—he had thought of an analogy that furthered the ideas on tradition we had been discussing for months. He likened the “me, Jesus, and my Bible” approach of Scriptural interpretation to Esau selling his birthright for a meal. My grandfather was right; the Great Tradition provides the longer sightline I need and an authority other than my gut. No longer can I view tradition as a peripheral, optional feature of my thought about God or interpretation of His Word.
Photo credit: Unsplash/Priscilla Du Preez
Lianna Davis is author of Keeping the Faith: A Study in Jude and Made for a Different Land: Eternal Hope for Baby Loss. She and her husband, Tyler, live outside of Dallas, Texas and have two dear daughters.