Tradition and Progressive Christianity

I've given a lot of thought to the role and function of "tradition" in Christianity, particularly in the progressive form I happen to identify with.

Progressive Christians, in my experience, spend a lot of time deconstructing aspects of the Christian tradition, while creating a new (sub-)tradition, but I haven't seen much reflection on the role of tradition as a whole. So I thought I'd share my thoughts on the subject.

"Tradition" is a pretty broad concept. Etymologically, it refers to that which is "handed over," which, in a religious context, encompasses a whole lot of stuff. Any transmission of religious information is, in a sense, a participation in tradition.

In practice, of course, tradition is rarely defined this broadly. A line is generally drawn between "orthodox" and "heterodox" elements, the idea being that only "orthodox" elements should be transmitted.

The most obvious difference between progressive and "traditional" Christians is in which elements we have judged worthy of continued transmission. But this difference concerns the content of tradition, which is not what I'm interested in right now.

The larger issue is the role of tradition. For "traditional" Christians, tradition is inextricably tied up with authority. For example, consider one of the central points of disagreement between Catholic and Protestants, namely, the authority of "tradition," vis-à-vis "scripture." It is often said that Catholics affirm the authority of tradition, while Protestants reject it, but this is rather simplistic. When one realises that scripture is itself a product of tradition, one sees that Protestants did not reject tradition, they simply limited it's extent. And even this is a simplistic description: the doctrine of sola scriptura is an extra-biblical element of tradition that is held up as authoritative. In reality, the Protestant Reformers didn't reject tradition, they simply replaced the old one with various new ones (to which Protestants, to one extent or another, ascribe some measure of authority, de facto if not de jure).

What traditional Christians (Catholic, Protestant, or otherwise) have in common is a tendency to treat tradition as a norm against which each individual's faith can be measured. It provides a "box" within which each individual must sit in order to claim membership.

Progressive Christianity, as I understand it, largely does away with this. The role of tradition is not to provide a norm against which we measure our own faith to determine if we merit this or that label. It is simply a part of the context that shapes us, that makes us what we are. If we find fault with what has been handed down, we don't break with tradition so much as we expand it by seeking newer and better ways of expressing our understanding.

More on this later.



Blogger Philip said...

"If we find fault with what has been handed down, we don't break with tradition so much as we expand it by seeking newer and better ways of expressing our understanding."

I like that. Are there churches that practice this? Seems like it would be hard to do on a communal basis. What if I find fault with something and you don't?

9:41 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I believe the application of this would require what I call a "perfect constitution": an unambiguous founding document that would contain provisions for every possible contingency, so that there could never be any disagreement over how it should be interpreted. Of course, such a document could never actually exist, so implementing this understanding of the church on an institutional level is practically impossible.

Having said that, religions are not just institutions. In actual fact, the tradition does progress, despite the resistance of some of its adherents.

The resistance to the emergence of "progressive Christianity" has not, in fact, prevented its emergence.

8:30 p.m.  
Blogger Mystical Seeker said...

To me, the value of tradition is that it prevents us from having to re-invent the wheel all the time. We can look at the questions that people in the past wrestled with and learn from what they did, not just their successes but their mistakes as well. So it isn't a matter of traditions serving as an authority, but rather as an educational tool and a body of material that we can use to work with as we move forward.

By the way, I think that the Protestant idea of "sola scriptura" is often a lot of hot air. Most Protestants who claim only to follow the Bible somehow manage to accept the findings of church councils that came long after the Bible was written--for example, accepting the doctrine of the Trinity.

12:18 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


Your point about "sola scriptura" is well-taken. I would go farther and say that it isn't even a coherent idea: It's essentially an extra-biblical tradition that denies the authority of extra-biblical traditions. (The very canon of scriptures is itself extra-biblical, so there goes that idea...)

4:51 p.m.  
Blogger David Henson said...

Not much to add. This is good stuff, though. Particularly that last graf.

11:48 p.m.  

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