This week’s class centered on the importance of tradition in the early catholic church. This use of the word “catholic” does not imply the Roman Catholic Church, rather it is refers to the churches throughout the world who aligned themselves with the orthodox, or correct, teachings. In this conversation my own working definition of tradition, in the broadest sense, is a set of beliefs and practices passed from generation to generation within a particular social group.
But who’s teachings are the “right” teachings. Who determines what is correctly Christian and deserves to be passed on from generation to generation? This point of the conversation always gets very uncomfortable for many Protestants and for many in the modern world of individualism. The one who determined what was properly Christian for centuries was the bishop. The bishop was a part of a college of bishops, usually one bishop for each city. The bishops were in charge of making sure the priests and teachers under their authority in a particular area were both teaching and practicing according to the historical beliefs of Christianity.
So, what are we to do with bishops? First, the near immediate response as a modern Westerner is that no authority, especially a religious one, has the right to tell me what it means to have any identity I have decided to give to myself. While this is both a reductionist response of Western self-expressivism, it is one that is quickly felt when any form of authority seeks to exert power. Second, as many of us are Protestants (and I use this very loosely to mean any of us outside of a Catholic or Orthodox church structures), especially those of us of a free church background, we simply have no place in our mental structure of the Church for a bishop. Let alone a bishop to actually oversee how we are to live the Christian life.
At this point we come to the doubly uncomfortable intersection of bishops for those of us who are free church Protestants. The authority of the bishops came from their teaching about Scripture. There were many heretical groups who used the texts that would become known as our Bible and other texts outside the chosen texts. The bishops were the ones who came together and canonized, or standardized, the texts we know as the Bible. They did this to discourage the use of heretical texts in the churches or by small groups of Christians in the churches. Unsanctioned small groups of Christians were the breeding grounds of heresy, whether it was strange spiritual practices or the development of errant beliefs (and it was usually both!).
In other words, the Bible we have is because the bishops received the texts from generations before them, preserved the texts by copying and teaching from them, protected them by standardizing their use in the local churches they oversaw, defending their historical necessity, and then passing them on to the generations after them. As I tell people in my “How to Read the Bible” classes, to open up the Bible and study it as the source of Christian life is actually to trust the bishops, whether we know them or not!
We all have a tradition. We all have religious baggage we are bringing to our reading of the Scriptures, whether that baggage is bore into us through family teaching, religious writings or upbringing, or even cultural attitudes towards certain ideas about religion or religious beliefs. We are all coming to the texts of the Bible with interpretations already given to us by those around us. The Bible is not an objective thing, which if studied enough, will simply tell us what we need to hear from God. No, instead the Bible is the most pure tradition of Christianity. That purest tradition must be handed down to us from the generation before us and then passed on to the one after us.
I was raised being told Catholics (and Orthodox, if we had known they existed) believe in Tradition and Scripture, sometimes even Tradition over Scripture, but we Protestants believe in Scripture alone. At some point it clicked for me that the phrase “Scripture alone” was itself a tradition which was being given to me by the ones speaking to me. That they were offering me a tradition that used the words “Scripture alone” to justify and support their beliefs and practices as a Christian social group, and that the only thing that was lacking was a bishop.
Beyond that, Scripture cannot be separated from tradition because our beliefs and practices about these texts are the beginning of all Christian tradition. The Bible is tradition. It is the tradition from which all other traditions grow out of and all teachings, or doctrines, try to be connected into. This means that I must receive how to read these texts from the people of God before me, and I am not allowed to simply go against the historical Christian teachings simply because I think I understand the Bible better than past generations.
The beauty in all of this is that Scripture becomes a life of togetherness. I cannot understand the Bible without learning from those who have come before me. I cannot understand Scripture without learning it in good and right relationship with the teachers of the faith who are teaching me in my life now. I cannot understand the text unless it shapes me into a life with the people of God. I cannot understand the message of the Bible unless I am passing it forward to the generations after me, whether in my children or those I teach. The Bible is a tradition of the people of God learning how to have a relationship with God together.
Where can I learn to fit a bishop into this traditional love for Scripture? I don’t know yet, but I’m willing learn.