Tradition as Tutor

by on June 8, 2009

“…[A]ll understanding, whether of history, art, or the Bible, is attainable only within a tradition. A tradition imbues its sons with a conceptual framework and interpretive horizons. A tradition provides its adherents with the questions to be asked of a text, which in turn allows the text to answer those questions within the framework of the tradition.”

churchUnless an individual entering or already in seminary understands the essence and reality behind this statement, it is inevitable that he or she will struggle more than is necessary.

Tradition is more than a few celebrations throughout the year. Tradition is like a tutor. It can be understood as a “filter’ through which we learn what we learn. Professors surely teach under, or within, certain traditional veins. For instance, those who support the traditional Documentary Hypothesis extend answers to who they believe wrote the Bible. Most first-year students are frightened by that theory. Why? Because according to the tradition they grew up in and/or have been taught by, Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy.

If one can become familiar with and accept this reality (i.e. that all people adhere to certain, specific traditions), then his or her development in seminary will yield much more fruit than otherwise.

This does not imply we must accept as “true” what others suggest or teach. But, if received and handled correctly, this approach to learning will produce three key components to a healthy, Christ-like character and a constructive experience at seminary.

(1) Humility. Unfortunately, seminaries are not immune to academic arrogance. It is likely that one would prefer to learn from a humble, not-the-most-intelligent professor, rather than an arrogant, super-genius professor. Likewise, a professor would much rather teach a humble student over a Mr. Know-it-all. Truly, the example Jesus exhibited as he walked the earth is one that we (and especially faculty) must clothe ourselves with.

However, without understanding the dynamics of how tradition plays into everyone’s learning experience, we will carry on as if what he believe is right, and if someone believes or teaches something different, then they become less in our eyes (perhaps subconsciously).

A practical step that can be taken to begin or maintain this formation in us, is to consider how many times in the past we’ve been wrong about things. Or, just consider how much your understanding and knowledge of God has changed since you first came to faith. Discipleship is a process.

(2) Peace. Since it is the case that we are instructed to always try and be at peace with everyone (Heb. 12:14), then it seems that possessing a healthy perspective concerning the learning process would go a long way.

This does not imply that healthy arguments cannot take place (keyword healthy). For indeed having a dialogue about doctrine, a certain part of the law, or whatever, can be formidable and produce good fruit. But, if this is done not rooted in the intention and desire to maintain peace, then it will yield bitterness and ultimately breed division.

(3) Respect. One of the most serious problems that exists amongst believers today (perhaps mainly Protestants) is an unhealthy approach toward authority, especially “religious” authority. This doesn’t mean that people necessarily blatantly disrespect their pastor(s). Rather, consider how the common person would respond if his pastor “butted in” his “personal life” and exhorted them to quit doing a particular something (that is clearly sinful), or to start doing a certain other thing (that is becoming of a believer).
There are several reasons why this is the case and it is something that is not new to us. Nonetheless, it runs rampant amongst us, which is evident as we span the spectrum of denominational factions and all the various ministries that carry the names of those who run them.

If we can see, understand, and embrace how tradition forms us, then we will be able to find an authority to submit to for our own good. This is respect in its ultimate display, and, along the way it is key that this same respect is shown to all people who are in positions of authority. God didn’t command that we honor our parents without implying that all authority must be respected as well.

We live in a society that demands precision, is capitalistic (in our orthopraxy), individualistic (to our detriment), in the business of making life as easy as possible (technological advancement), and is becoming more and more multicultural. The seminaries in this society are all influenced by these things and perpetuate them as well. Given this, and our innate tendencies, possessing the virtues above is a difficult task. But, it’s one that can be done if equipped with the right understanding, motives, plan, and support.
Many traditions are implanted in us at birth and we carry them for our entire lives, whether we are aware of them or not. Other traditions we choose along the path of life. Seeing the diversity amongst us should provoke us stop and think about these things and to determine how to properly and effectively handle this reality.

No matter what tradition [Baptist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Methodist, non-denominational] we’ve been a part of and have been shaped by when we entered seminary, we will inevitably be introduced to beliefs that conflict with ours. This is okay; rather, this is good. For indeed, each specific tradition is by nature limited in its scope of understanding. We must realize that as long we pursue God and desire to minister to his people and the world, it will be necessary for us to come to grips with the fact that we will never have it all figured out. But, if we close our fists and act like we do, then we limit our potential to become like Messiah.
So, let us open our hands and the let the Lord take what he will and give what we need. Yes, he is faithful despite us; but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make an effort.

1 – Joshua A. Berman in the introduction of Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2006), xx.

Comments

This is something that I am really wrestling with. I was a little disappointed after my hermeneutics class because I thought that would give me the keys to understanding all of Scripture if I would just put my mind to it. But what I realize now is that our specific traditions and presuppositions play huge parts in how we handle the text.

This doesn’t make me want to chuck the Bible by any means, but it does help to give me a little more humility about how I approach discussions.

Wrestling is good – only there can we grow. There is much to glean from one another and also from those who have gone before us, despite our adherence to different traditions.

Shalom.