The Blue Parakeet: The Right Use of Tradition

parakeetMcKnight continues explaining the right way to read the scriptures.

The way of returning to retrieve it all is not the biblical way. The biblical way is the ongoing adoption of the past and adaptation to new conditions and to do this in a way that is consistent with and faithful to the Bible.

(Page 29; italics in original). Of course, this begs the question: who decides which Biblical teachings are to be adopted and which are to be adapted?

McKnight suggests that we first must learn to read the Bible “with tradition.” We don’t read the Bible bound by tradition, but neither do we ignore tradition.

Think of it this way. Even the smartest person ever born doesn’t have all the experience and all the education of the entire church — that is, the entire church living and dead. As wonderful as it is to live in an age when anyone can read dozens of translations on the internet and millions of opinions on what each verse means, no one is the final expert on interpreting the Bible.

[The Orthodox have this wonderful way of speaking of the “church” as including not only the living but also those who’ve gone on ahead of us. They have not really died so they are still part of the church. One area in which it is particularly helpful to think this way is when we speak of reading scripture in “community.” This means not only with those still alive but in conversation with the church in heaven through their writings.]

Therefore, any serious student of the Bible should read in light of what others have concluded about the scriptures. We need to be in dialogue, not only with our friends and fellow congregation members, but also with the great scholars of the ages. I may choose to disagree with Martin Luther or John Calvin on grace, but shouldn’t I at least understand their views before disagreeing with them? Or am I so smart that I can learn nothing from either?

Therefore, the wise student takes the trouble to read what others have said and are saying. If you try to interpret Romans unaware of the work of the greatest scholars of the last 2,000 years, you are failing to use all the resources God has given you.

Once you know what the greatest minds in the history of Christianity have concluded, you are free to disagree. But if you do so, do so in conversation with others. Indeed, one of the great benefits of internet forums and blogs is their interactivity. Readers can easily add their thoughts to the discussion, enriching and correcting the teaching.

McKnight makes a critical point. The New Testament writers studied and taught with tradition, even though they disagreed with much of the tradition. They studied the scriptures they had — the Old Testament — as well as uninspired writings of the Jews. In fact, as most Christians have never read 3 Esdras or Sirach, for example, we don’t notice the many New Testament allusions to these and similar uninspired works. The New Testament was written in conversation with other streams of First Century Jewish thought, sometimes agreeing and sometimes not.

The point is that, even with the benefit of inspiration, the writers paid attention to traditional interpretation. They built on what had already been built, correcting as necessary.

McKnight concludes,

Instead, we need to go back to the Bible so we can move forward through the church and speak God’s Word in our days in our ways. We need to go back without getting stuck (the return [retrieval] problem, and we need to move forward without fossilizing our ideas (traditionalism).

In the Churches of Christ, the applications are particularly profound. If we take McKnight’s advice, we’ll study Restoration Movement history and the teachings of our predecessors. We may not agree with all that Stone or Campbell wrote, but we should at least pay them the respect of hearing what they have to say.

Just so, we should listen to our 20th Century forebears, H. Leo Boles, Rubel Shelly, etc. Again, while I may disagree with some that they say, I should be respectful enough to listen before I do. Who knows, we may just learn something we never would have thought of on our own if we read David Lipscomb’s Civil Government or Harding’s writings on prayer.

I attended David Lipscomb College from 1972-75. I lived in Sewell Hall. My future wife lived in Fanning Hall. Despite taking daily Bible courses and attending daily chapels for all those years, I graduated not having a clue as to who Lipscomb, Sewell, or Fanning were or why someone might want to name a building after them. You see, in those days we pretended that we learned nothing from our tradition and so we had no need to study it. We were wrong.

Of course, we should also be reading the works of current evangelical scholars as well as the writings of our Reformation predecessors. And the Patristics. And so many more.

It’s a conceit of the Restoration Movement that anyone can pick up the Bible and, untrained, read it perfectly. Indeed, we claim the truth of all our teachings is plain and obvious — so plain and obvious that those who disagree with us disagree with the very words of God himself!

But it’s not true. If you want to understand Romans or Matthew or Genesis, check out a few commentaries that interact with the scholarship of the ages and learn what the great scholars had to say on the subject. Take the time to find out what’s being said by the great scholars of today. And then, if you want to disagree, by all means do so. Just don’t disagree out of ignorance.

The point is well illustrated by our recent series of lessons by Ray Vander Laan. People loved the series because his teachings on the Jewish background of scripture greatly deepened and enriched our understanding. Without the benefit of his experience and study, we’d not understand “green pastures” or “the Abyss” as we should. None of us could just pick up the Bible and understand En Gedi the way we do now, having seen the video and heard the lesson.

Rather that pretending that we’re all great scholars and have no need of help, we should humbly learn to sit at the feet of the great scholars of the ages — admitting that we can do better as a community of believers than we can alone.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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