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  • Rev. Morgan Byars

Tradition (The Wesleyan Quadrilateral Part 2)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith – Hebrews 12:1-2a


Last week we touched on scripture’s role in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and now we will touch on tradition. As someone who loves to study history, I have a soft spot for this particular element that can so often be mistreated. On the one hand, there is a tendency to idolize traditions and a desire to go back to the “good ole days” when our beloved institutions seemingly got it right. This view ignores the problems of the past and the many good reasons for moving onward. On the other hand, however, there is also a tendency to view tradition solely as a relic of the past with no purpose in today’s world. This view ignores the ways in which traditions might be good or life-giving and the many good reasons for continuing them. Methodists find themselves in an interesting place with both of these risks. Methodists obviously do not believe that tradition is right always and everywhere; if that were true, we would still be Anglican![1] Yet at the same time we take pride in our Wesleyan heritage and the distinguishing marks of John Wesley's theology: an emphasis on grace, the practical application of theology, evangelization, and issues of justice.

So how does our complicated relationship with tradition help us read scripture? Well, the Hebrews passage gives us a helpful lens. Let us think for a moment about that great cloud of witnesses, from even before Abraham to John the Baptist and beyond. There is much that changes in the all the time that these witnesses lived: sacrificial systems differed, various law codes in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy changed, new rituals like Passover were initiated, theology evolved and grew in the wake of the exile, and expectations of the Messiah’s work changed. But at the same time, there are recurring themes in their lives: God’s love and grace, an emphasis on justice and works of mercy, and God’s faithfulness even in the midst of change. Ironically, a constant seems to be change! Yet in the midst of all that surprising change we see the same God loving and redeeming God’s creation. In that sense, then, God remains the same even as our understanding of God has grown, all thanks to God revealing more and more of Godself. This means that our traditions may remain or change depending on their faithfulness to who God is as we grow in our knowledge and love of God. We see this lived out in the life of the early Church as Christians pondered the implications of Jesus' ministry. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, upended all sorts of expectations and theological systems like sacrifice and Gentile exclusion (hence today's cover photo). Therefore, those traditions were jettisoned as the people grew their newfound understanding of God. At the same time, Jesus confirmed many things: God’s unity, grace, love, justice, and redemptive will. Therefore, those traditional ideals remained, albeit in a new context. Scripture and church history testify to both change and consistency as a means of being faithful to the character of God. So, should we be traditional or not? Honestly, it depends. Whatever our context calls for, we must always be asking ourselves if our traditions are faithful to the character and redemptive will of our God. If they are, great! If not, then perhaps God is calling us to something even better. It would hardly be the first time that God has called Christians to something new. Such work is undoubtedly hard, but it is thankfully a work that we can do together as a community of grace and mutual encouragement. As we do that reflective work together, and in the spirit of encouragement, I leave you with this: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

[1] And if Anglicans thought that tradition was always right, they’d still be Catholic!

* Cover photo: The Woman of Canaan by Michael Angelo Immenraet, (~1673-1678)

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