The Tradition: Dealing with Error, Part 2

My second post on the Tradition a while back ended with a question: “How shall we reject the antisemitism of our (early church) fathers without rejecting our fathers, and thereby repeating the very same sin that they committed?”

It’s quite a dilemma, isn’t it?  The race hatred of our fathers was a sin, and we must reject it.  We must speak against it.  We must say that it is incompatible with Christian life and faith.  We may not overlook it; we may not simply pretend it didn’t happen.  Period.

On the other hand, these men — Chrysostom, Luther, and so many others — are our fathers in the faith.  They paved the ancient paths on which we walk, and we may not overlook that, either.  We may not pretend that we have simply come de novo to the Bible, and we owe them nothing.  Even if we had come de novo to the Bible, we would owe them a debt we could never repay for their labor in recognizing, preserving and propagating the canonical books — but we owe them far more than that.  We have not come de novo to the Bible after all; we are taking part in a Tradition to which we owe a great deal.  Nor is it enough for us to simply say we owe them and then move on: genuine gratitude must be meaningfully incarnated, or it is just cheap sentimentality.

The fashion of the age is to avoid this sort of trouble by damning anyone* who indulges in race hatred.  Such a person (so goes conventional wisdom) is benighted, backwards, and useless, and could have nothing worthwhile to say.  For a Christian, this is not an acceptable stance to take.  First of all, we have our own sins, and if we would not have others dismiss us out of hand because of our failings, then we may not dismiss others for theirs.  Second, as a matter of historical fact, our fathers had quite a lot to say that was, and is, worth hearing.  The Spirit did not fail to speak through the teachers of past ages; Christ has been building His Church right along.  So the fashion of the age be damned; we’re Christians and we’ll have to do better than that.

I propose we do better by simply telling the truth, all the way around.  Luther was a great man whose great contributions we respect and use, and who fell into a great sin that we hate and renounce.  What’s so impossible about that?  We know that we can sing David’s psalms without falling into his adultery; why doesn’t it occur to us that we could acknowledge Luther’s contributions without expressing some sort of tacit approval of his antisemitism?

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*Not actually true.  There are people who can get away with it, even today.  Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic statements come to mind.

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