The trouble with tradition

Lutheran theologian Robert Benne laments the ELCA’s departure from the “Great Tradition” of marginalizing gay people and its descent into the dreaded “liberal Protestantism.” The problem, it seems, is that the ELCA hasn’t given sufficient weight to the opinions of white male pastors and theologians.

One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever someone makes an appeal to tradition (or Tradition), there will always come along someone else who’s more traditional than thou. Some of Benne’s commenters are already pointing out that the real problems began when Lutherans abandoned biblical inerrancy (or broke away from Rome). It’s also worth pointing out that some of our most outspoken “traditionalists” on gay relationships are “liberals” on questions like women’s ordination. And almost no Lutherans take the traditionalist position on artificial birth control. One man’s traditionalist, it turns out, is another man’s liberal–or heretic.

Which isn’t to say that it’s impossible to be a consistent traditionalist. But such a consistency would have to be purchased at the price of plausibility. Why, after all, should we think that all the interesting moral or theological questions were already answered in the first (or fourth, or thirteenth, or sixteenth) century? The Bible itself contains passages where people are wrestling with–and revising–their received tradition (e.g., the fifteenth chapter of Acts). This seems necessary if tradition is to be a resource of wisdom and inspiration and not an ideological rationalization of power and privilege.

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2 thoughts on “The trouble with tradition

  1. Does being a consistent traditionalist require always giving the received answer? Your citation of Acts 15 suggests another way of viewing this. It is possible to revisit the older practice and ask whether it is consistent with what we know about Jesus and his Word. This may lead to continued acceptance or amendment or rejection of the received answer. But the fact that all sorts of questions may be revisited does not mean that there is no boundary whatsoever. There is quite a difference between someone who argues, say, women’s ordination using word studies of key words and someone who argues that Paul was just a male chauvinist pig so we can ignore him. The latter has left the tradition.

    So then we come to the question of whether we’ll always know whether someone has really gotten to their conclusion by working within the tradition. I expect that to remain difficult. I’ll just say that on many of these issues, I find some people well-worth interacting with and some not. I think the ELCA has been a mixed bag here. I’ll choose my next bag based on my trust that the tradition has not been abandoned.

  2. Rick, that’s a good distinction and one that I’d endorse. I do think there’s a sense in which you can be “traditional” by digging into the basic, fundamental principles of the tradition and arguing that what we thought they entailed isn’t necessarily so. Then there’s “traditional” in the sense of “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” I agree that there are people in the ELCA who are too glib with the tradition.

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