This is the second post in a series on the Tradition, which is also related to the posts on Mystical Union and Theopoetics. In the last post, we finished with the idea that the Tradition could be wrong only if Christ is not risen, Yahweh is not the God of heaven and earth, and so on. Which leaves us with the question: Living within the Tradition, how do we deal with errors when they arise?
The Tradition is the only game in town. How will you walk with Yahweh except by His Spirit, among His people, and according to His Scriptures? As a Christian, you’re part of the Tradition whether you like it or not; you can’t judge it from outside, because you can’t get outside it. “I am right and the Tradition is wrong” is a self-contradictory statement for a Christian; every Christian is part of the Tradition.
One presumes there was nothing wrong with the way the Apostle Paul conducted a church service. Chrysostom writes a liturgy in the 4th century, the Divine Liturgy that much of the Eastern church still uses to this day. The interesting question is not why a 21st-century church uses a 4th-century liturgy, although that will certainly bear exploring. The interesting question is, why a 4th-century liturgy, rather than a 1st-century liturgy? What did Chrysostom add, replace, change? Was he justified in doing so? And if so, then couldn’t Thomas Cranmer have been justified also? Couldn’t I?
The Tradition is providentially developing through history. The Tradition is always maturing, and therefore is always incomplete in that sense, because it always has room for future growth into greater maturity. We can’t disparage the Tradition on account of its historically-bound incompleteness. That’s the way God chose to do it, and there’s that whole business of critiquing the Potter to be concerned about, and anyway, it’s just silly to criticize others for their historically-bound incompleteness when we have the same problem.
But sometimes, we’re not just talking about incompleteness or immaturity. We’re talking about serious sin in our history. How shall we talk about rampant and obvious sin within the Tradition? The obvious answer is to critique it biblically — and this is also the right answer. But how we go about this task matters. Let’s take an easy example: the antisemitism of the early church. This problem is not often discussed in most evangelical circles, because it’s embarrassing, but for those of you who don’t know, large swathes of the early church were virulently, violently antisemitic. This is a well-established historical fact, so I’m not going to repeat all the evidence here. Feel free to look it up; it’s almost certainly worse than you imagine.
Moreover, the early church’s anti-Semitism is eminently understandable. It was Jewish people who abducted Jesus in the middle of the night, illegally tried Him, and delivered Him to Pilate. It was only at their insistence that Pilate crucified Him. It was Jewish people who murdered Stephen, it was to placate Jewish people that Herod killed James, it was Jewish adversaries who hounded Paul from town to town. Jesus was Jewish too, of course, but He came to Israel, and took from Israel a people for Himself, and then sent His disciples into all the world. Judaism after Jesus was not the religion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Jesus took their descendants with Him (that was the point of Stephen’s famous speech, which got him murdered). Judaism after Jesus was and is the chaff, not the wheat, and so it will remain until Israel’s repentance and restoration. In due course God sent Titus the Roman, and the chaff was scattered to the four winds. The theology was simple and self-evident, the historical evidence was indisputable, and the emotional motivation was potent: Jewish people had been, and remained, implacable and murderous enemies of the gospel, precisely because they were Jewish.
So why not hate them? The early church forgot two things: first, if Israel is our enemy, then we must do what Jesus told us to do, and love our enemies. Second, we come from Israel. We are not a second tree, planted in Israel’s place when she is utterly rejected—no indeed. We are productive wild branches, grafted into Israel’s tree, and if her fall is riches for us, what will her restoration be? The fruitless branches will not remain cut off forever: “All Israel shall be saved.” In the meantime, her root supports us. Her Scriptures are ours, and we owe her all gratitude for conserving them for us. From Abraham to Jesus, Israel was the custodian and visible manifestation of the Tradition, and we cannot disown her, however much the early church might have tried.
Which is to say that when the early church sought to expunge every trace of Jewishness from their religious practice, their error wasn’t just hating their enemies; that would have been bad enough. They were hating their fathers. God don’t dig father-hatred, and has made His opinion on this most clear: “Honor your father and mother.” “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set.” “My son, hear the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the law of your mother, for they will be a graceful ornament on your head, and chains on your neck.” “Whoever curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in deep darkness.” “The eye that mocks his father, and scorns obedience to his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pluck it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.”
Now, how shall we reject the antisemitism of our (early church) fathers — which we obviously must do — without rejecting our fathers wholesale, and thereby repeating the very same sin that they committed?