Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christian Tradition

Feast Day of St. Matthias, Apostle
February 24, 2011

The Lord be with you

For some “Christian Tradition” is almost a synonym for Christian “myth” or “legend.” For others, it is something held to as having near biblical authority. It doesn’t help that people use the term “tradition” with a wide variety of meanings. The following is a list (no doubt incomplete) of things people might be referring to when they speak of the “Christian Tradition.”

1. The Bible
2. The decisions of the first seven Ecumenical Councils
3. The writings of the Church Fathers through the first six centuries AD.
4. The writings of any recognized Christian leader from any age
5. The stories about the saints, both biblical and post-biblical
6. The development of worship liturgies, and styles
7. Icons
8. The development and current use of the Christian Year
9. The three Ecumenical Creeds

The problem of what is meant by “tradition” is further complicated by the fractured nature of the visible Church today. While the Church baptized babies for the first 1,500 years of its existence, during the Reformation segments of the protestant movement broke with this “tradition.” They refused to baptize babies or recognize people who were baptized as babies as being truly baptized. This group was called “Anabaptists.” The name either means “against [infant] baptism” or “re-baptizers.” (The experts are split as “anabaptist” can mean either.) At any rate, those who share such thinking now have a strong “tradition” stretching back 500 years. They believe it stretches back to the days of the New Testament. So they might say, in all sincerity, that the “Christian Tradition” teaches us to baptize only those who can confess their faith verbally. This means that today we can also speak of the Lutheran Tradition, the Baptist Tradition, the Methodist Tradition, the Roman Catholic Tradition, the Easter Orthodox Tradition, and so on, each asserting that they represent the true tradition of the Church.

Today is the Feast Day of St. Matthias, Apostle. From the pages of the Bible we have very little information about him. He was selected to replace Judas (Acts 1:12-26). From the selection process we know that he was one of the men who accompanied Jesus and the other disciples “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22). He was, therefore, an eye-witness to the life, teachings, miracles, trial, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Because the Holy Spirit fell on all the Apostles on the first Pentecost, and all the Apostles spoke in unlearned foreign languages, Matthias also shared in this experience. In fact, any of the exercises that “all” the Apostles engaged in would also include Matthias (such as preaching and baptizing). However, by name, he is never referred to again in the pages of the Bible and, by name, he is not referred to prior to Acts 2.

When people want to know more about Matthias, or anyone else in the New Testament, we turn to “tradition.” In this case we mean the stories handed down over the centuries about these people. Such stories answer questions like: How did this or that person die? Did this or that person become a Christian? What was the field of ministry for this or that person? What did this or that person look like?

How reliable are the stories? They must be judged on a case by case basis. A good beginning question is: How old is the story? If the story can be found in writings from the Second Century, chances are there is a good bit of history in it (as in a good chance it is completely or almost completely historical). If a story about a New Testament person doesn’t appear in the written record until the Tenth Century, the chances are it is mostly fiction (like 99.9%).

Experts in this field can spend a great deal of time trying to distinguish history from fiction. There is value in such study, but most of us lack the skill in the original languages to do it. We also have other things to do, like earn a living. So what value do these stories have for those of us who can’t invest the time to determine the historical reliability of each one? Simple. The stories still serve as encouragement to us. Was the Apostle Thomas really the person who brought the Gospel to India? Well, I like the story, but the bottom line is that, if it wasn’t Thomas, it was someone. Letting the Indian Church “have” Thomas also accents that they are built on the same Apostolic foundation, with Christ as the Cornerstone, that the rest of the Church is built. Was Paul really a short, stooped man with weak eyes and a large nose? Even if he wasn’t, the picture accents that God can use any and all of us, even if we don’t fit the world’s idea of a perfect physical specimen. Was Peter really crucified upside down because he didn’t feel worthy to die in the same manor as his Lord? Even if he wasn’t, the story accents a deep humility and a life completely committed to Jesus.

Now to be honest, the traditions about Peter and Paul are quite good. That is to say, Peter probably was crucified un-side down and Paul probably was a short, stooped, weak-eyed, large nosed man. Thomas going to India is not as solid, but it is better than others. Sometimes the stories are even impossible to reconcile (like a person dying in more than one place). Be that as it may, if they inspire us to a closer walk with Jesus, they have served a blessed purpose.

Remember, our Lord told parables. We don’t ask if the events really happened. In fact, in a straight parable, the events didn’t happen. When farmers went out to sow their fields, they didn’t scatter the seeds all over the place. They aimed for the field. That there were no farmers as stupid as the one in Jesus’ parable doesn’t detract from the meaning of the story. So it is with the stories in Christian Tradition.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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