The Historicity of Tradition

A question that comes up regularly in contemporary Christian discourse, be it in the academy or in conversation among non-academics, among laypersons and clergy, is the question regarding the metaphysico-ontological presuppositions behind our classical dogmatic and doctrinal vocabulary, the “world view” (to use a popular contemporary term) of the theologians, the Church Fathers, and the scriptural texts themselves. The problem our age is confronted with is the distance between us and these ancient texts and the thought contained with them, and how we are to engage with them. Often, we must deal with the uncomfortable fact that our age sometimes has very different ideas and understandings of not just scripture, but the world as a whole. Given this gap of knowledge and understanding of the world, can we really trust in the dogma and doctrines that arose from these bygone ages? And for those of us who operate from different metaphysico-ontological grounds than the Church Fathers (whichever figure and whatever philosophical proclivities they had), how do we engage with them when we might reject certain metaphysico-ontological assumptions they’re operating with, if not their entire system altogether?

On this point, we can’t be naive about how philosophical forms have always been in relation to Christian doctrine and its historical development. It’s simply a fact that there can be no consideration of Christian theology that is “non-metaphysical” (a brash but sensible response to Tertullian’s dismissive quip about what Athens has to do with Jerusalem is: “a lot, actually… if not everything?”). Our dogmatic and theological language is always historically contingent not only because thought itself is historical but also because the Christian religion is a “historical religion” that, as Robert Jenson says, is a religion that acknowledges, justifies, and is expressed through space and time (revelation always occurs at a certain moment in time at a certain place, the greatest of which is the scandal of the Incarnation). And obviously, all theology is intertwined with philosophy in some way insofar as theology is a human project, a human attempt at understanding and interpreting revelation. And insofar as theology is thought, it will always have certain metaphysical and ontological structures because all thought always has certain metaphysical and ontological presuppositions. It’s inevitable, and problematic in its own ways, but it’s an expression of our human finitude, mortality, and above all our historicity. On this point, the Church Fathers are little different from the generations that came after them and we can make some sense of Kierkegaard’s saying that the work of faith is one that every generation “begins all over again” and “advances no further than the previous one, that is, if that one was faithful to the task and did not leave it high and dry”. If there is true continuity in Christian thought, a contemporaneity between us and the communion of saints, this wouldn’t just be a continuity of mere words, repeating the same literal words ad infinitum, but a continuity of the same spirit that preserves and perseveres through a myriad of languages and ages.

When we look at the Creed or other formulations of faith in the proceedings of the Ecumenical Councils or the theological expositions in the writings of the Fathers, the laborious and sometimes seemingly torturous conceptual contortions that are contained in these aren’t so much signs of captivity to certain contemporary philosophical systems as much as they show how much the doctors of the faith are pushing the best linguistic and metaphysical tools available to them to the point of rupture, and they are pushing their tools in such a way precisely because they are trying to reach out to and give expression to the revelation of God that exceeds the systematic capabilities of what they’re working with. It’s precisely because of these ruptures that Christian theology, at least Christian theology that is faithful to its mandate, is always very distinct even in comparison to their closest philosophical neighbours, be they Middle Platonic, Neo-Platonic, Aristotelian, Kantian, Hegelian, Marxist, Derridean, etc. And the reason why Christian theology of every generation always ends up being distinct from the philosophical milieu of its day, and why Christian theology of every age is distinctively Christian and in clear continuity with the theology of its predecessors and successors, is because in every generation there are thinkers that have dared to attempt the monumental task of being attentive of and attending to the Word of God with the meagre and always flawed and limited tools they have at hand. When we read the Fathers, it is always those that were the most conscious and humble about their limitations that wrote the most glorious works, and it’s no different when we read and converse with contemporary theologians.

What I want to suggest is that perhaps one of the main problem with our age and my generation is that we often think of metaphysics and theology in rather rarefied ways because we mystify theology and Christian dogma. Setting aside particular questions of dogma and theology for a moment, let’s try thinking about just humanity and its diversity, both “vertically” in the historical sense of how the past relates to our present, and both to the future to come, and “horizontally” in the manifest diversity among the various cultures and languages across nations and subcultures within nations that are all somehow contemporary to each other. Both “vertically” and “horizontally” we’re faced with the fact that we are in relation to those with which we don’t share the exact same language and the exact same presuppositions about the world, the essence of things, what certain things mean and imply, etc. Nevertheless, the capacity for true dialogue can occur when we, in good faith, acknowledge and mutually agree to look at and talk about a same “object”. Though the way we talk about said object, the words, the way we interpret, the implications we draw from this object, can all vary, there are points of connection and, with great effort, points of real understanding of one another about what we are talking about together despite disagreements and differences of language. And on the rarest but most important moments, in the midst of these “points of connection” we can experience the awe-inspiring moments where we see something so earnest, so true, that we come to acknowledge the other as being more accurate and amend our own language and interpretive system according to this truth that we have come to know and accept. At times our system is incapable of accommodating the truth we have now received and we discard our system entirely because of its inadequacy. We come to understand our old system as being catastrophically incorrect and ultimately irredeemable, or at the very least requiring some very serious amendments. But ultimately, through this laborious work and discipline, both we and our interlocutors come to understand that true study and true dialogue occurs when our linguistic and conceptual apparatus does not attempt to subsume the object into itself but rather exercises itself for the sake of apprehending the object with care. It is when our intellectual apparatus operates as a means, rather than an end, when we are truly being sincere. The relationship between theology and revelation is no different, and it takes this problem to the highest level because the work is so difficult and the stakes so high, and because it is so easy for us to fall prey to distractions.

It must be noted (and admitted by others who take orthodoxy seriously) that one of the main reasons why theology, particularly the Creed and the Church Fathers, is regarded as strange, mystifying, and obsolete, is because so much of the gatekeeping antics of the self-proclaimed traditionalists involve placing the writing of the Fathers on ahistorical pedestals that the Fathers themselves would have never wanted to be placed upon (well, most of the Fathers anyway!). Escaping the grasps of Biblical literalism does us little good if all we do is become “Patristic fundamentalists” that merely copy-paste the words of the Fathers word-by-word, as if that somehow answers all questions regardless of whatever age or language the questions are being asked in. But despite the deference that might be shown to the Fathers by such jealous defenders of the tradition, they often lose sight of how the problems the Fathers were grappling with were contemporary issues, and how we can see clear lines of development that are building upon one another, with both agreements and disagreements between them. They are constantly trying to learn from the last set of mistakes and build upon the successes. The history of Christian doctrine is a long and continuous story of great thinkers meditating upon the same mystery of revelation in dialogue with each other, working through the implications of the works that precede them and passing on the torch to the next generations.

When we study the Church Fathers earnestly and allow them to speak to us, what we get isn’t a pristine series of doctrinal manuals that fell from the heavens but a continuous and ongoing dialogue. As Chesterton says in Orthodoxy, true Christian teaching is like a vehicle driving fast down the road, wobbling furiously from side to side yet staying upright – “reeling but erect”. This wobbling is something we can see pretty well through most of our Christian history if we look and listen carefully. It is in this sense that the tradition is a living thing, and it is this living thing that we have not only received but have been received by as Christians. To be a theologian is to receive and listen to this dialogue, and when we write we are daring to add our voice to this ongoing conversation to be judged by our contemporaries and successors, and indeed, also our predecessors. Just like how the Bible is a public revelation, not meant for mere private study, our meditations and interpretation of revelation is also a public, communal endeavour, not just an individual’s intellectual fancy. We only truly begin to appreciate the Fathers and learn how to do theology from them once we demystify them and let them speak to us. For myself, the prime value of Patristic writing is the way it shows me how the best theologians of the Christian tradition worked with the tools they had available to deal with the problems and questions that raged in their day. What is required by us above all here is the acknowledgement and understanding of the givenness of the tradition.

Much of the modern rejection of the Creed and the theological tradition is characterized by a patronizing impatience, a lazy half-read attitude that speaks far too quickly. We rightly condemn those who speak out in ignorance and absurd misunderstandings, unwilling to learn better and clarify their knowledge. Why is it, then, that so many of us are unable to see how ridiculous it is for us engage with our predecessors with the same kind of ignorance? What is pathetic about someone like John Shelby Spong isn’t just that he’s a heretic, but that he deals with the tradition with absurd mischaracterizations of what it is saying and prides himself in knocking down these scarecrows. Just like how sincere dialogue with our neighbours requires us to respect them regardless of whatever differences we might have, so that we may be sit together in charity, dealing with the Fathers also requires us to respect them as dialogue partners so that we may read their writings in charity. It’s only through this economy of charity that any real understanding can happen, and this requirement doesn’t change even if the person we may be sitting with has passed away 1700 years ago. If anything, it is even more vital. John Henry Newman once said that impatience is an ingredient to all heresy. I hope that at this point we might be able to begin to get a sense of what Newman meant by this saying.

Although I still haven’t even begun to touch upon the content of the Creed, or really any point of doctrine or theology proper, I want to end this deeply incomplete preface on a theological note. We believe in the eternal life and the communion of saints. If we take this seriously we know that the saints are not dead, that the Church Fathers are not dead. Then, in a sense their ancient writings are eternally contemporary to us precisely because their work are all striving towards the same thing: understanding the revelation of the self-same God. The truth in their teachings, the truth of Christian dogma, will always be true because it is an attestation to the Truth of God that was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, that transcends all human systems. Just as it is possible for us, through the gift of caritas, to appreciate, sympathize with, and speak of the other who has been thrown into existence in ways so different from us, and experience in ways that we can never experience, God has granted us the capacity to speak truly of the divine through his self-revelation. Thus, whatever is true in the writings of the Fathers is true despite the limitations of the linguistic and conceptual forms through which the Fathers expressed their thoughts. To be attentive to God’s self-revelation, to attend to this with utmost sincerity and humility in communion with our predecessors who live and speak to us as eternal contemporaries, and to clear away the rubble made by the haphazard failures of our generation – this is what the tradition is. This is what the theological work of the Apostolic Church has always been generation upon generation, ages unto ages. Reading and writing faithfully within this dialogue – this is the essence of orthodoxy.

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