16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions
We have said that Christianity began without any cultus,
without the usual rituals of festivals, musical performances, dances,
pilgrimages, inscriptions etc. And yet we have seen that a healthy
community identity arose, with the specific ‘in-house’ usage of
terms like ekklesia, Chrestos, etc. The hard boundaries of the community
against the world led to a healthy and strong sense of identity
with each other. And inevitably some traditions developed which
served to strengthen the community. The following are examples of
traditions which developed in the early church:
- It seems that hymns developed,
fragments of which are found in the poems of 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Eph.
1:13,14; 5:14; Phil. 2:6-12; Col. 1:15-20; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet.
- There are also other standard
acclamations or doxologies which may reflect common phrases used
in prayers throughout the early brotherhood- just as there are
certain phrases used in prayers throughout the world today. “Thanks
be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”
is an acclamation that crops in up in some form or other in 1
Cor. 15:57; Rom. 6:17; 7:25; 2 Cor. 2:14; 8:16; 9:15. Likewise
“God…to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 3:15; Rom.
11:36; 16:27; Eph. 3:21; 2 Tim. 4:18; 1 Tim. 1:17).
- “A holy kiss” seems to
have been the way of concluding a meeting, in the same way as
Paul ends some of his letters with this (1 Thess. 5:26; Rom. 16:16;
1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; 1 Pet. 5:14).
- I have wondered, and it’s
no more than me wondering, whether it could be that Rom. 10:9,13;
Acts 22:16 and the other references to calling on the name of
the Lord at baptism imply that the candidate for baptism made
the statement “Jesus is Lord!” after their confession of faith
or just before their immersion, and then they shouted the word
“Abba! Father!” as they came out of the water, indicating their
adoption as a child of God (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
But over time, these healthy signs of group identity became rituals
and traditions which were insisted on, codified and formalized.
And this gave way eventually to the abuses of the orthodox churches.
Tradition As Authority
Paul's letters indicate that there was a very wide diversity of opinion in the early churches, on a whole range of practical and theological issues. If the early preachers had insisted upon a higher level of understanding and conformity before baptism, then the church wouldn't have grown as it did. Instead the impression is given that a basic belief in Jesus and His teaching was what was required, and the clarification of anything deeper was left to be later elucidated. And as we know from the epistles, this process often didn't come to completion. As time went on, however, there arose the very human desire for tighter definition of everything- and this is what led to division and the evaporation of that unique spirit of unity and love which characterized the first Christians. In his extensive survey of the post-Apostolic development of doctrine, J.N.D.Kelly observed that "gradually... did the tendency to insist upon precise definition and rigid uniformity assert itself" (1). This desire for uniformity didn't achieve unity, but rather the opposite. For true spiritual unity isn't achieved by uniformity. Further, this desire for precise definition, intellectual accuracy and purity of 'truth' rather than the spirit of Christ, led to an effective distinction being drawn by Clement and Origen between simple believers, who just accepted the Biblical record, and those whom they called 'spiritual men', 'the perfect', who looked beyond the Scriptures to some more esoteric knowledge of God. In all the discussions of doctrine which occurred in the second and third centuries, it became less and less common to appeal purely to Scripture. The decisions of councils of bishops came to define which dogma was right and which was wrong; the average believer was no longer empowered to decide for him/herself, nor were they allowed the autonomy to decide for themselves what they thought the Bible meant. The original source of Christian doctrine wasn't so much the Bible as we know it, but the person of Christ. He and His teachings were what Christian doctrine was all about. But this Christ-based faith became muddied by so much that was extra to it. Truth became defined according to which line of earlier church fathers believed it- thus Clement spoke of "the rule of our tradition" (Dialogue 80,3) as being the source of truth. Athanasius used this argument to justify his view of the dogmas that later became enshrined in the Trinity: "Athanasius, disputing with the Arians, claimed that his own doctrine had been handed down from father to father, whereas they could not produce a single respectable witness to theirs... the compilation of lists of fathers of unimpeachable prestige, with select quotations from their writings, became a favourite technique in theological debate" (2). Tradition and the name-dropping of learned men became more important than the basic truths of the Bible. And there's scarcely a church today which hasn't faced this kind of mentality over one matter or another.
(1) J.N.D.Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (London: A. & C. Black, 1968) p. 4.
(2) Kelly ibid., pp. 45,48.