Some of my best friends are Protestant! I have engaged in innumerable fascinating discussions with Protestant friends over the decades on the differences and similarities between the two approaches to being Christian. One of the benefits claimed by some Protestants is that the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are “traditional” Churches while Protestant Churches are not. By this it is usually meant that the traditional Churches adhere to a body of beliefs and practices developed by human beings through the centuries while the non-traditional Churches are not limited by such constraints, and are therefore able to enact the Christian Gospel free of any merely human innovations. But is this really true?
Human nature is such that we cannot, like God, create anything ex nihilo, out of nothing. All we can do is take what is given to us and perhaps synthesise or modify it into something else. In this sense, all that we do is traditional. When we drive our cars on the left side of the road, when we wear clothes of particular fashion, when we follow certain healthy diets, when we use qwerty keyboards; all these are examples of traditions that we follow. If we didn’t, life would be impossible. Imagine if you could not depend on medical research to tell you what a healthy diet looks like, but had to work it all out on your own, right from scratch! Traditions allow us to get on with life, to progress in life, to build on the wisdom and experience of others rather than have to do it all ourselves from first principles. To be sure, it is often interesting to go back and read how a tradition came about, and thus understand why it is a good tradition to follow, and to be sure, some traditions occasionally need revision or even total reformation or replacement, but the idea of living your life according to a set of traditions is something we all do every day of our lives, and indeed, could not live the lives we now live without doing it.
So it is somewhat hard to believe that of all the things in the world of human beings, there is this one particular case, this one exception to the rule, where Protestant Christianity can somehow get along without following any traditions. Of course they follow traditions! The real question is not whether a Protestant Christian is traditional or not, but:
- Which tradition does she follow? and,
- How flexible is she about her tradition?
Let’s consider the first question. The Catholic Church today follows a tradition that is rooted in ancient Christianity and descends in unbroken lineage from it, but has been altered and modified in some areas beyond recognition, especially through the Middle Ages and the response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Orthodox Churches also follow a Tradition that is rooted in ancient Christianity and has not suffered as many changes over the centuries, although it has been influenced by Western Christian ideas in some areas. Today we are seeing a resurgence of interest in the nature of authentic ancient Christianity through the renewed interest in the writings of ancient Fathers of the Church which the information age has made available to all for the first time in history.
Protestant Christianity, in rejecting the tradition of the traditional Churches, has not gone back to a simple and pure ancient Christianity, but has created its own new tradition, a modern tradition of Christianity that in many important ways is quite different to ancient Christianity. By insisting on the doctrine of sola scriptura – ‘scripture alone’ – they have ignored the two unavoidable facts that (a) scripture needs to be interpreted; and (b) that there are right and wrong ways of interpreting it. The right way is the way that those closest to Christ and His Disciples received from them. The tradition of the traditional Churches is, in theory anyway, as close to that ancient way of interpreting Christianity as possible.
Note that I say, “interpreting Christianity” rather than “interpreting the Bible”, which is the question that chiefly occupies Protestants. The reason for that is that for the first three hundred years, Christians had no Bible in the form we think of it today. There were bits and pieces of the New Testament in different parts of the world, and a body of spurious imitations that were accepted in some areas but not in others. The books of the Bible themselves are nothing more than the written record of the traditions of the early Christians, and a self-confessed incomplete record at that. And then there is the fact that there was no universal canon of which books belong in the Christian Bible until the fourth century. In fact, it was the early tradition of the Church that decided which books belong in the Bible and which don’t. So the Bible actually grew out of Church tradition. Jesus did not hand out signed copies of New King James Version Study Bibles to His Apostles when He sent them out to evangelise the world. He equipped them instead with a living tradition: experiences, relationships, beliefs, practices and stories that were only written down some time later. They were no less Christians for the lack of a full Bible!
Traditional Churches accept the value of this living tradition and understand that Christianity is not about a set of magic texts, but about a living, relational way of being. The Bible is a hugely valuable part of that tradition, but to isolate it from the tradition that brought it into being is to remove its context and open oneself to the possibility of all sorts of misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
Neither can the Protestant avoid being traditional. If you reject the ancient tradition, you end up replacing it with a new tradition. For Protestants, the new traditions (plural, since there are so many varieties) are those of Martin Luther, John Calvin and others. In this sense, they are distinguished from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches who follow the traditions of the Apostles and their immediate successors. That’s the answer to the first of the questions posed above.
But how can we know that Protestant Christianity is not as faithful to ancient Christianity as the older branches of the Church? We only have to look at the evidence, of which there is plenty. We are fortunate in having a very comprehensive historical picture of what an ancient Christian community was like: how it was organised, with bishops and presbyters and deacons and widows; how it prayed, with the necessity of Baptism and the centrality of the Eucharist; and how it fasted communally on Wednesdays and Fridays. We have documents like the Didache (pronounced dee-DAH-kee) that date back to the first half of the second century and describe all these things as being the way of life of the Christians of the time. Didache … Calvin … two traditions.
In answer to the second of the questions above, the Catholic Church has historically had a reputation for being somewhat inflexible in its adherence to its tradition, although many would argue that the theology of the Middle Ages, that of Anselm and Aquinas and the rest of the Scholastics, represents an innovation that departed from the ancient Christian faith and tradition. In recent years a fresh breeze of evaluation and modification blew through the Catholic Church, the most visible evidence of which was the Vatican II Council. Some of the reforms adopted in that Council, while seeming to be innovations, were actually a replacement of more recent innovations with the more ancient traditions.
Orthodox Churches have historically been even more inflexible when it came to changing their tradition, rejecting the innovations of the medieval West and holding firmly to the faith delivered to them from generation to generation. Nonetheless, even here there have been departures from authentic ancient Christianity, particularly when Christianity was legalised by the Roman Empire in the fourth century and the Christian Church went from being a persecuted and constantly purified spiritual community to being a state-supported (and often state-controlled) institution. The era of Islamic dominance in Egypt also saw some influences on Coptic culture and traditions, an influence that probably worked in both directions. About a hundred and fifty years ago, when the Coptic Church was weak, an influx of Western missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, introduced some innovations, for better or worse (Sunday School was one of the better ones). But again, at the dawn of the twenty-first century there is a growing movement of reform to throw off the encrusted influence of the “Western Captivity” of the Orthodox Churches, the influence of later Western ideas and practices, as well as the Islamic influences, and a strong desire to return to the simplicity of authentic ancient Christianity in this most ancient of branches of Christendom.
But Protestants have been the most flexible of all. Historically, they have been very quick to splinter into a multitude of groups with a multitude of variations in the tradition they follow. Perhaps this is one reason they are usually not considered traditional Churches – a tradition that changes so rapidly is perhaps not worthy of being called a tradition. But today, when you walk into any Protestant Church, be sure that you will find just as many traditions as you will find in any Catholic or Orthodox Church. It’s just that they will be different traditions, not so ancient, not so faithful to true apostolic Christianity, yet traditions nonetheless.