Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tradition, Part One

On Thursday night, the WAC Basketball tournament gets underway in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Fresno State enters the tournament on a roll as the third seed and ESPN.com puts the 22-8 Bulldogs as a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament:

Fresno State [22-8 (10-6), RPI: 73, SOS: 151] If there's a second team that can come out of the WAC, it could be Fresno State. The Bulldogs finished third in the league but have been strong down the stretch, finishing season sweeps of New Mexico State and Utah State with wins at very difficult road venues. The Dogs also beat Creighton, although the two-point home loss to Stanford might come back to haunt them. A run to the WAC title game won't be easy -- they open against a Boise State team that has given them fits this year (a split decided by a total of five points), then likely would have to beat host NMSU in Las Cruces again to get a chance at Nevada. If Fresno can do that and show well against the Pack? We know the committee watched the title game last season and tapped Utah State as a surprise at-large. Why not a similar scenario this season?

One thing I've noticed as a result of my passion for sports is the critical role of tradition in defining a successful team. From East Coast to West Coast, tradition is valued in the delivery of the game to its fans. From the songs the bands play to the cheers of the crowd to the timeouts that illicit fan participation, a game typically offers up the same routine.
The same traditions.
So my question is: why is tradition such a good thing in the sporting world but such a point of conflict in our churches? Why do we so value tradition in the songs our bands play at a game and often complain when traditional songs are sung in our worship assemblies? Why is the routine celebrated in sports and bemoaned in Christendom?

The Austin Graduate School of Theology, where my buddy Allan Stanglin is working toward a Master's Degree, publishes a periodical in which the faculty addresses relevant issues related to the life and faith of the church.

The most recent periodical (Volume 21) arrived last Friday. It deals biblically with the practices and traditions related to faithful Christian practice. I have so appreciated the insights of the essays that I want to share portions here over the next few days in the hopes it will strengthen your faith and insight, as it has mine.

The initial essay, written by Michael Weed, is entitled "Tradition: A Stranger to the Modern World and Church." Here are excerpts from the article:

The active presence of God in the life of the early church was not understood as having ceased with the apostles and the apostolic church. Rather, as the church continued to make its way through history -- facing challenges and opportunities -- it understood itself as living in the presence of the risen Lord and the Holy Spirit, and equipped with the witness of Scripture. The apostolic exhortation of 1 Thessalonians 5.19-22 well captures the dynamics of the post-apostolic church's stance as it makes its way through the ebb and flow of history. "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil." Paul's injunctions, "test, hold fast..." and "do not quench the Spirit" stand in tension.

Either injunction, taken alone, may lead the church into disaster. To "hold fast" without being open to new possibilities and opportunities leads to a petrified church, mimicking a receding past, irrelevant to the present and future. Contrariwise, a church that -- however innocently -- embraces everything new as "the work of God's Spirit" is a church whose identity soon becomes overwhelmed by the shifting forces of its surrounding culture and the caprice of human hearts.

The apostolic instructions, collected in Christian scripture, provided the church with fixed points by which to navigate its way through the challenges, opportunities, and uncertainties it encountered in its unfolding history. The church charts its course under the guidance of the unrepeatable and indispensable record of apostolic teachings and instructions incorporated in scripture. Succinctly, all subsequent ecclesiastical, or church tradition is continually subordinated to apostolic tradition. For the post-apostolic church, the New Testament provides "the essential norm against which the Church of every age has to measure itself."

And yet, recourse to scripture does not relieve the church from having to make difficult decisions. Clearly, scripture can be and has been used to underwrite and legitimate ventures that are in fact not consistent with its underlying meaning and intent. It is wise to remember the advice that we more nearly hear the voice of apostolic tradition when we are open to it challenging us and standing against our desires and aspirations -- especially our religious aspirations. Hendrikus Berkhof reminds us: "The history of the church is full of indications that scripture has again and again acted as a guiding, correcting, and liberating counter-authority. There is a subtle but profound difference between usurping scripture for our own views and desires and the willingness to be guided by what it really says."