New folk are often struck by how much Anglicans talk about “the tradition.” People sometimes assume we mean, “That’s just how we’ve always done it.” But that is not what we are talking about at all. Refusal to change is not “the tradition,” just stasis. Jaroslav Pelikan, called that, “Traditionalism, the dead faith of the living.” The Great Tradition is the living faith of the dead. What we mean by “tradition” is robust and life-altering. The Apostle Paul commended the Corinthians because they, “maintain the traditions as I delivered them to you.” (1 Cor 11:2) and, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter (2 Thes. 2:15). So while Jesus criticized the traditions of the elders (Matt 15:3), the traditions of the Christian faith passed along both verbally and in scripture are applauded.
But what is “the tradition”? When Lancelot Andrewes, the bishop who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, was asked what Anglican Christians believe, he described the tradition: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries…determine the boundary of our faith.” “The Tradition” is the elemental seed of the faith found and taught in the Church’s first five centuries.
Why not just go with the Bible? Because heresy after heresy and schism after schism arose in those first five centuries. The early church dealt with them and told us how to deal with them. St. Vincent of Lerins referred to the tradition as, “That which has been taught always, everywhere, and by all.” In our era many claim God giving them new revelation. Yet these “new ideas” are always remarkably similar to ideas resoundingly rejected by the Church as novelty centuries ago. “The Tradition” is Mere Christianity, the core of the faith, that which has been passed from generation to generation.
The verb form of the Greek word for tradition, “paradosis” is “handed off” or “delivered.” When Paul said in 1 Cor 11:2, “maintain the traditions as I delivered them to you.” Paul literally said, “maintain the traditions as I traditioned you.” He used the same word when he said, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3). Jude called it, “the faith once for all delivered.” “The tradition” is nothing less than the core of the faith that is handed from generation to generation. It is the baton that must be passed, the irreducible minimum. It is much more than what I received in my flattened evangelical background that assumed nothing was needed beyond a personal experience of Jesus and a passing knowledge of the scriptures that could be interpreted as a promise towards myself. It is important to know “the tradition” because “the tradition” is not just that which must be received for our lives to be changed. It is “the tradition” that guards that we do not wander into the ditch of narcissism on one side or traditionalism on the other. It is the tradition we must pass on for the answer to Jesus’ question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth” to be a resounding, “Yes!”
Photo credit: Kievan Rus’ miniature (11th-century) retrieved from: http://pravoslavie.ru/30762.html