The Place of Tradition

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In the first century, the Apostle Peter could write this to his newly converted friends about praising God:

"You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2.9).

And in the twenty-first century J.I.Packer has written this about praising and worshipping God:

"The deliberate lifting of one's eyes from man and his mistakes to contemplate God and his glory, grows increasingly precious as the years go by, and brings solace and refreshment to the Spirit in a way that nothing else can do."

I've started with those two quotes, as Article 34 of the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles of religion (that we are studying this morning) is about worship.

But it has also to be about tradition. It, indeed, is headed "Of the Traditions of the Church". For tradition plays an essential part in our praise and worship by shaping our concept of God - who he is and what he does. So how important we get that right! For traditions can be bad. Jesus on one occasion had to challenge the Pharisees and Scribes, who …

"… asked him, 'Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?" (Mark 7.5).

But Jesus replied to them that was just a "tradition of men" – a tradition they had made up.

Jesus was more concerned about the commandment of God they were defying, namely the fifth of God's Ten Commandments, that says:

"honour your father and your mother."

It seems the Pharisees and the Scribes had so manipulated things that some people couldn't spend their savings to support their parents in their old age. Somehow these savings had been dedicated (not given) only for religious purposes. But, whatever the mechanics, Jesus' verdict was:

"You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition" (Mark 7.9).

So there are bad traditions as our Anglican Reformers in the 16th century were only too aware, and as the Founders of this Church were aware in the 19th century. But because of the existence of "bad traditions" unfortunately for many Protestants "tradition" has had a bad name. However, not all traditions are bad as we shall see.

So my headings this morning are, first, The Place of Tradition in General; secondly, The Place of Tradition in Worship; and, thirdly, The Place of One Tradition

So, first, The Place of Tradition in General

What does "tradition" mean for the Christian? I like G.K.Chesterton's definition:

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about."

Certainly the Christian tradition means there is so much to learn from other Christians down the centuries. Paul's prayer for his friends was that

"… Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith – that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend [listen] with all the saints [that is, world-wide and down the ages] what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3.17-19).

You must realize there have been 2000 years of people reading the Bible and expounding and teaching it. If faithful, they have been contributing to the Christian tradition. For tradition is what Paul is writing about in 2 Timothy 2.2. There he told Timothy:

"… what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also."

Handing on the Christian faith in all sorts of ways from person to person or group to group is what the Christian "tradition" really means. This Sunday, as a Church, we are celebrating the tradition that our Founders handed on to us. You can see that tradition at the top of page one of your service sheets. You there read that JPC should be a Church which would

"… form a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and Evangelical truth in a large and populous town [now a city]."

And how we need to be faithful to that tradition! Of course, every Christian believer here this morning, has been subject to some passing on, or handing on, of the Christian tradition. For most it will have been something you've learnt of the Christian faith from your parents. Or it may have been a school or college friend who took you to hear someone speak, or you read something.

Perhaps there is someone here this morning who traces their Christian faith back to reading some Bible verses in a hotel bedroom, which included a bible in the bedside cabinet. If so, there was certainly a great tradition behind that. For, one thing, someone in the old Gideon tradition put that bible there in the first place. And, of course, that book entitled the Holy Bible only contained the books of the Bible according to the list in the front of the Bible. And that was because of two absolutely vital traditions. First, there was the handing on of the Old Testament list of books that Jesus and the Apostles endorsed as their Bible. So that was relatively straightforward.

But there was an issue over the New Testament tradition and what makes up that New Testament list (or Canon, to use the technical, word). That could be agreed on by Christian representatives from around the world only gradually. In fact it took several centuries. The key criterion for being in that list was apostolicity. "Was it from a genuine Apostle of Jesus, or containing material from a genuine Apostle?" – that was the test.

By the end of the second century there was agreement about the four Gospels, Acts and the letters of Paul. But it took longer for agreement over the remaining books. However, eventually, there was agreement in the Church that these were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were Apostolic in ways in which other literature was not. And that became the established tradition of the Church, agreed and accepted by most Christians.

But does that mean the Church has a higher authority than the Bible? No! Of course not! It's one thing to recognize God's word in the Apostolic books. It is quite another to then put your-self above God's word and what the Apostles say. The Church doesn't make the Bible "God's Word written" (Article XX). It is just recognizes it.

It is the same with the traditional teaching of the Holy Trinity (Article 1). The Church recognizes that the teaching of the Bible can only be adequately expressed in the doctrine of the Trinity (over which it also took three centuries to reach a common mind).

But this is not adding a new doctrine to the Bible. It is formulating a mystery the Bible reveals. And the doctrine expressed helps you avoid certain errors as you seek to understand the Bible. It is the same with the teaching on the person and work of Christ as being fully God and fully man - which we call Christology (Article 2).

Also that is why the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed are still vital (Article 8). They also aren't superior to the Bible. They simply reflect, and, in different ways, summarize the teaching of the Bible for our understanding of God our Father, and of the person and work of Jesus, the divine Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

And why all this is so important is that it aids our worship and proclaiming well and what is true about those excellencies of God, that Peter talks about and in which Jim Packer glories.

That, therefore, leads us on to our second heading and The Place of Tradition in Worship

So if God has chosen you to

"proclaim [or, as our Founders would translate, 'promulgate'] the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light",

you need to "maintain" those excellencies against neglect and attack. So you need to work for right worship. But what does right worship look like?

In the New Testament "worship" is seldom defined but always taken for granted. We know that Jesus and the early Christians engaged with some of what went on in the Temple and they certainly worshipped in the synagogues. In the Church's early evangelism, the synagogue was often the first port of call, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. Then, when the Christians were expelled from the synagogues, they formed what at first seemed an alternative synagogue. So Christianity was seen by some in the Apostolic age as a "sect" of Judaism.

At any rate, it is generally agreed that what the Christians did when they met together was considerably influenced by the Jewish synagogue worship. But this was combined with what happened in that Upper Room where Jesus had his last meal with the disciples before his crucifixion. So there was some liturgical shape to what they did as in the synagogue. It involved praise, prayer and very importantly Bible reading with instruction following the Bible reading.

Luke 4.21ff records how, on one occasion, Jesus was invited publicly to read from the prophet Isaiah and give the address that followed in the Synagogue in Nazareth. So we can imagine that similarly praise, prayer and Bible reading was happening in the Christian synagogues.

However, we must now skip the centuries, to the later middle ages and what was happening in Christian Churches in the 16th century. For then there was a lot of superstition around and not least regarding Holy Communion. A problem, of course, was that in the West the services were all in Latin, and there was little Bible reading. And when there was Bible reading that too, of course, was in Latin. That didn't help lay people who couldn't understand Latin!

So after King Henry VIII, when Edward VI was on the throne and Luther and others were influencing England, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, drafted a new Prayer Book with revised services. A first edition was published in 1549 and a revised version in 1552. And that 1552 edition is substantially the version that has come down to us as The Book of Common Prayer of 1662.

Also the Articles of Religion that we are studying, came about at this time. They were produced as 42 Articles initially in 1553 (just after Cranmer's 1552 Prayer Book). But they were then revised from 42 down to our 39 in 1562 when Elizabeth was on the throne. And these 39 Articles can be understood as a commentary on (or a lens through which) we are to understand the Prayer Book.

So with that background, let's consider the first part of Article 34. This says that not all Traditions and Ceremonies when Christians meet together need to be identical. I quote (from the original wording) and on page 7 of your service sheets:

"It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, or utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men's manners."

So in principle it was justifiable, with good reason, to change the Roman services that had been inherited in England. The major qualification was, as the article goes on,

"so that nothing be ordained against God's Word."

The Article, therefore, maintains that if what is said or done in the service is clearly wrong according to the Bible, that cannot be part of a Prayer Book or any Christian worship. For the Prayer Book and all worship must be scriptural. So Cranmer revised the Roman services to make them more biblical, but he didn't want to reject what was good in them. And, of course, what Cranmer wrote was written in English so the worshippers could understand it.

But who determines what is a Scriptural service or not? It can't just be one individual thinking he alone knows what is right and what is wrong. And also it mustn't be one individual who thinks that what is not positively endorsed by the Bible must necessarily be banned even when it is not repugnant to the Word of God. So the new musical organ is not in scripture, therefore, some said, "it should be banned." And there are parallels today. At any rate the second paragraph of Article 24 says, I quote:

"Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly (that others may fear to do the like)."

And why this was wrong, and is still wrong, was threefold:

First, it was an offence against Church discipline. The article says such a person,

"offendeth against the common order of the Church."

Any organization has to have some rules, even unwritten rules like my school where we had no rules, but if you broke them you got into trouble! And there were Church rules when Cranmer wrote. And today the Church of England certainly has written rules or Church Canons. And it has Church Measures, which have the same legal force as Acts of Parliament. (But unfortunately doctrinal error can't be disciplined, only moral misconduct.) So, first, you shouldn't unnecessarily offend against church discipline and good order in the Church.

Secondly, for such an individual taking the law into his own hands (I quote) it …

"… hurteth the authority of the Magistrate."

At the time of Article 34, the State could enforce Church doctrinal discipline in a way it can't now. But it was hard to convict in such a case as is envisaged in this Article, so the law was devalued.

And, thirdly, such an individual, I quote,

"woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren."

Some radical reformers were wanting to do away with certain traditions, such as festivals like Christmas, and other Holy Days, or traditions such as reciting the Creeds in services, giving of rings in weddings, signing with the Cross in baptisms, and the service of Confirmation. But the mainstream English Reformers didn't think these were "repugnant to the Word of God" and to change them would disturb weaker brethren. You certainly didn't want to make people take off their wedding rings as being ungodly!

Yes, Cranmer thought somethings should be abolished when they were repugnant to God's word. Otherwise, if they were "edifying" or contributing to people living more as God intended, they should continue to help people in their worship of God.

That, among other things, is what is maintained in the last part of Article 34:

"Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man's authority, so that all things be done to edifying."

So, says the Article, change can only come about, one, when there is legitimate authority, and, two, when that change is for edifying – building up Christians. Let me give you one example from JPC's history (and it occurred to me before I knew of the flowers for Joy for her over 40 years of coordinating the crèches and the women's bible studies).

At this Church in 1973 when I first came here, the crèche was very tiny and in the Newcastle Preparatory School across the road. That was not satisfactory. However, people were doing what they could in the circumstances. So the circumstances had to change. But the problem was at that stage we had a diminishing robed choir who, robed not unnaturally, in the Choir Vestry. But we saw that the Choir Vestry was ideal for a crèche. And there are no canons about choirs having to have a Choir Vestry. So we were able to change all that (as gently as we could) and in 1976 the Choir Vestry was able to function as a crèche. That was for edifying. Babies could be well looked after and mothers were easily extracted from the service if necessary. And that greatly helped the worship, with babies happy and mothers happy and worshippers happy and able to concentrate in this main building.

So that leads on finally, and very briefly, to The Place of One Tradition and a challenge.

One of the great Christian traditions enabling Christian worship has been the Christian Sabbath.

But that has been significantly lost in Western Protestantism, and so in the nations where the major religious tradition is Protestant. This tradition of the Apostles, of course, transferred the Day of Rest from Saturday to Sunday – the first day of the week - in celebration of Christ's Resurrection. Also this is a tradition that follows the example of God in creation and, of course, the fourth of the Old Testament Ten Commandments:

"Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy."

I'm concluding with this, because not so long ago I was personally challenged by re-reading some of J C Ryle and on the Sabbath and not least by the following (I quote):

"The subject is one which is of immense importance. It is not too much to say that the prosperity or decay of English Christianity depends on the maintenance of the Christian Sabbath."

Yes, there can be hypocrisy about Sabbath keeping and inhumane legalism as we heard in our Bible readings (and I need to write a Coloured Supplement on the Sabbath tradition). But, in the meantime, can I close by inviting you all to pray that we recover somehow the Sabbath principle nationally, for our own good and as an act of neighbour love. For it was the great 18th century jurist Lord Blackstone, who said these words that, I'm sure, are still true:

"The keeping one day in seven holy, as a time of relaxation and refreshment, as well as for public worship, is of admirable service to a State, considered merely as a civil institution."

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