See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority.
We all have a history. We have the history of our personal upbringing, our culture, our community, our nation, etc. Our histories have a way of helping to define the way we understand ourselves, others, and the world around us. Sometimes these histories are the result of an emergence of relative recent values, practices, and events, which will leave us experiencing a dissonance with those whose formative life periods were not experienced under similar conditions. For my generation, the emergence of the internet helped define my generation, particularly those of us who are older millenials, as existing between two different worlds. On the one hand, we were the first to step into the new communication technologies, but at the same time we grew up in a world that had a longer history.
So, I grew up divided between two commonly differing ‘histories’ between a tradition and a new, emerging pattern. As a consequence, I have a vantage point to see how different cultural patterns can both play together and also conflict with each other. My tradition extends from the white south, of which I have seen much good but also I have discovered much injustice present within it that my emerging ‘history’ allows me to observe and notice. Nevertheless, I can not jettison the entirety of these traditions, but my conscience does not allow me to turn these traditions into an authoritative, unquestionable Tradition.
I have come to have a similar perspective about the traditions of the orthodox Christian faith. To cut off any speculations and theological hyper-vigilance from the get go, I am a theologically orthodox. While I have still much learning to do, I consider myself to have a conciliar theology that finds the Church councils of the first centuries of the Church to be important voices we must hear from as we seek to understand the confession of faith in Jesus Christ that we have. I place much value in the collective voices of the early Church as the outworking of the Holy Spirit. However, I have come to question both the role of the Christian tradition in the the emergence and training in faith and also the way we champion specific figures of the traditions as representing to us the truth of the Gospel. We necessarily need the traditions of the Church to help us to hear the Gospel without telling the wrong sort of story; we don’t need to tell the Arian story that the Logos of John 1.1 was Himself created, lest we take away the power of God Himself from the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, when the tradition morphs into Tradition, we treat the teachings of the Tradition as the representation of the Gospel and we lift up the theological “champions” of the past as venerated figures.
My first example is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity importantly protects the way we tell the Gospel story in a way that the Scriptures don’t make explicit. It reminds us that the one God we trust is known as the Father and as the Son and as the Spirit. However, there is a distinct difference from the way the Trinity protects the way we tell the story of God and the way the doctrine is treated as most important content of faith and the various debates over Trinitarian ontologies are treated of the highest theological importance. This later focused emerged as the result of the significant influence of philosophy on the early debates on Christology that allowed believers to hash out important distinctions. However, this useful tool for addressing narrow questions of central importance to understanding of the Gospel took on a life of its own, treating the content of the Christian faith as a facsimile of philosophy. If we value tradition, then we can recognize the important of the doctrine of the Trinity, but if we move towards valuing Tradition, our faith becomes controlled by all the ways the Tradition itself developed.
As to the champions of orthodoxy, I lift up Athanasius as a central target of a misplaced honor. The dogged persistence of Athanasius was certainly pivotal in protecting the Church from Arianism. However, the Nicene Creed was a reflection of the Church’s voice, not Athanasius himself. By many accounts, Athanasius was a morally ambiguous character. This doesn’t mean that we should forget Athanasius or treat him as vile, but we should carefully reflect on the value of his overall theology to the Church. Athanasius was not a beacon of gentleness and mercy. For instance, Athanasius thought that Arians’ should be “held in universal hatred for opposing the truth.” With such hostility in mind, read this following quote from Athanasius on debt of death for which Christ came to redeem us from:
But since it was necessary also that the debt owing from all should be paid again: for, as I have already said , it was owing that all should die, for which special cause, indeed, He came among us… (De Incarnatione 20).
While Athanasius was accused of murdering a person who was still alive, Athanasius statements and theology represent a very punitive worldview that people deserve to die for their sins and errors. While that doesn’t mean we should throw everything Athanasius said, insofar as Athanasius understanding of the Incarnation is tainted by the death-dealing worldview, I can not respect his broader theology of representing the truth of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit can use ambiguous figures who do love God and seek the truth to accomplish His purposes, but that doesn’t mean everything the defenders of the faith said is gold, silver, and precious stones that will last when God’s judgment comes to the whole world; much of it is wood, hay, and straw. When we venerate the Tradition, these figures take on greater importance, and their own brokenness becomes passed onto us through the authority of the Tradition. I hold Athanasius’s proto-substitionary explanation for the Incarnation responsible for the latent anger and predilection towards death that Christian circles influenced by penal substitution have a tendency to embrace in ways they aren’t readily aware of, because the nature of your worship will form the type of person you become. The Incarnation of Jesus is important, but Athanasius’ words aren’t necessarily so.
For a more contemporary example, I am highly indebted to John Wesley’s theology in my study of Scripture. For instance, his understanding of grace fueled my explorations of the New Testament to understand the various ways in which the power of God in Jesus Christ and the Spirit manifests His influence on our lives. However, let me state that I think the brokenness of Wesley and his theology was transmitted to me. I developed a “methodological” approach to living the Christian life that left me in somewhat of a perfectionist mentality. Additionally, Wesley’s own failures with relationships with women, which I attribute to his own ethical style, was transmitted to me. Even as the Wesleyan tradition has much to say, to the extent I treated it as a Tradition, the brokenness of Wesley was transmitted to me.
We need a critical appreciation of the early traditions, recognizing their voices are voices who heard the Gospel in a way that wasn’t as controlled and malformed by later traditions. At the same time, the proclaimed truth of the Gospel is conditioned to the disclosure of the eternal Holy Spirit and not any individual person or individual period of time. If we are to take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in coming to life and learning the truth of the Gospel, then we have to take a step back from the veneration of the Tradition, even as we recognize the collective tradition of the Body of Christ lead by God’s Spirit is something we should give ear to as we seek to understand the Gospel.
When Paul warns against philosophy and empty deceit in Colossians 2.8-10, he partly attributes the problem of this to relying upon human tradition. Now our modern ears might hear “philosophy” as something likened to the metaphysical speculations of Plato or some of the modern, more abstract modes of doing philosophy. This wasn’t what Paul was describing though. Philosophy in the Greco-Roman world was thoroughly ethical in its orientation, even if it did address broader, more “traditional” philosophical topics. These philosophies would regularly rely upon older traditions, such as the Stoics reliance upon Zeno and Chrysippus or the Epicureans reliance upon Epicurus.
However, Paul’s target doesn’t seem to be Greek philosophies, but rather Jewish “philosophies.” When we look at Colossians 2.16-23, the target of Paul’s warning looks much closer to some form of Jewish ethical teaching. Judaism was often treated like a philosophy in the Roman era. Josephus represented the Pharisees, the Sadducee, the Essenes, and a fourth group as philosophical schools. Philo of Alexandria attempted to bridge Judaism with Greek philosophy, with Jewish teachings being the ultimate foundation. Insofar as philosophy was understand as the love of wisdom and wisdom was understood to be ethical, some of the schools within Judaism could be considered a philosophy.
The significance of saying that Paul regards at least some portions of Jewish teaching being a philosophy is profound for us today: that meant that the Jewish tradition Paul grew up in was also something that Paul regarded as a human tradition that could lead people astray. The very people who study God’s Scriptures could form a tradition that misleads people. This overlaps with Jesus’ criticism of the tradition of the elders as misleading people to break the commandment of God (Matthew 15.1-9) As a consequence, these human traditions that came from the Jewish faith are forms of human righteousness rather than God’s righteousness (Romans 10.3; Philippians 3.8-9). As a result, they are not based upon the power and work of God, but rather the basic principles of the world in which we live. Hence, the instructions Paul say to reject are based upon not handling, tasting, or touching, as very basic, element actions in the world.
Herein lies the problem of Tradition: it can readily enshrine all too common earthly, fleshly realities as the power of God. When tradition doesn’t function to point us towards the power of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ so that through the fullness of Jesus Christ we can experience fullness in him, but instead functions as the foundations for the Christian faith, we begin to slowly usher in the earthly, the fleshy, the human into our theology, worship and devotion, rather than allowing the loving power of God who gives us new life to define and redefine our theology, worship, and devotion. Even as Athanasius’ Incarnation theology and Wesley’s theology on grace points to the life-giving power of Jesus Christ, they both also bear deep human brokenness in their theology that when transmitted directly or indirectly in an authoritative way can bathe the Church within human brokenness that comes to rely so much on basic earthly principles. In this modern age, I would suggest human power has been this earthly principle.
Edited to add: About 40 minutes after posting this, I saw the following tweet:
Hannah Kate’s story is one you research if you wish. But let me request and urge you to consider how much Tradition can be used mislead and be used in the service of harming others, rather than raising people up and loving Christ. Let us constantly repent and unlearn as we return to the Word of God in the fullness of Christ through the Spirit who gives us life, which sometimes includes learning how to use our traditions appropriately in life-giving ways.