Some Thoughts on the Value of Heritage

In response to my posts on the Second London Confession, my friend Ben posted a question, asking:

How would you defend the Baptist Heritage that you’ve been talking about (or by extension, the Reformation) against the idea of “apostolic deposit” and the fact that, right or wrong, the Orthodox church has the greatest connection with the “line of church history” (if you consider them to be the victors (?) of the 1054 schism)[?]

I answered this way:

Scripture stands authoritatively above all church heritage and history. The “apostolic deposit’ is found in Scripture AND ONLY in Scripture. Therefore a heritage’s helpfulness is directly related to its conformity with Scripture.

“The line of church history” means very little, especially if that line stands outside of true apostolic authority — the Bible. It doesn’t matter a wooden nickel if the Orthodox tradition has more “weight behind its heritage” if that weight is not the weight of Scripture. (And I don’t intend to comment on Orthodox teaching one way or the other here…)

Since about 200 A.D. the church has baptized infants, and this clearly has the weight of church history in many camps. But that means nothing, because authority derives from Scripture and not the cumulative “weight” of church history and practice. Something being practice for a long time does not make it right. Theology and doctrine does not gain credibility because years accumulate with that theology and doctrine being accepted. We simply cannot grandfather in our theology because it has been that way for a long time.

All of that said, I believe that the early Particular Baptist heritage aligns closely with Scripture. I believe it is a rich heritage because it accurately distills biblical truth into correct axioms. Yes, in some ways, when I say a “rich” heritage I mean an “ancient” heritage. But much more than that I mean a “biblically faithful” heritage.

To which Ben asked (in a nutshell):

If tradition doesn’t have any weight, then why would the tradition of the Baptists have value?

This is my answer:

First of all, I am assuming that by “weight” Ben here means “authority”.

Next, I would agree with Ben’s assessment of my position — that is — tradition does not hold with Scripture any co-equal authority. Scripture is our only authority. I don’t apologize for this position, because I think Scripture itself testifies to it.

Ben’s question is, then, “What is the value of tradition?”

Well, first, I think that the question somewhat confuses the issue, and implicitly assumes that value derives from authority. I don’t think that the lack of authority for Baptist  (or any other) heritage in some way negates its value automatically. For example, I don’t think many would claim C.S. Lewis as absolutely authoritative, but that does not mean his work has no value. We can appreciate and even follow some of his ideas, weighing them in light of Scripture and chucking them if they’re wrong and keeping them if they’re right. His thought provides value for seeing things in a way we might not have before — but his thought in no way stands over us authoritatively. We regard him as a wise and godly man, whose counsel we consider, but see as clearly subordinate to Scripture.

I think a biblical ecclesiastical/theological heritage is the same way, only on a larger scale and over a longer period of time.

So why is a heritage valuable, specifically the Baptist heritage? Here are a handful of reasons:

1. It faithfully interprets Scripture. We see the way that, for example, the Second London Confession interprets Scripture, and find that it accords well with what Scripture actually teaches.

2. It then can provide a framework for interpreting Scripture. I don’t mean here that it imposes false categories on Scripture. Rather, if we have found that it holds fast to Scripture, we can use it as a helpful and valuable guide, though we recognize that it is not infallible.

3. It gives us greater insight into Scripture. Sometimes others, with greater wisdom, holiness, or just plain intelligence can see things in the text we would otherwise miss. This happens to me all the time. I will read a passage, and someone will preach or teach on that passage, bringing to light things that are clearly in the text — but that I just missed.

4. When we realize #3 above, it humbles us and puts us into our place, giving us perspective. I think a massive failure of American evangelicalism is that we think that we can be individual pioneers of biblical study. We think we don’t need any help. Well, that is, simply, pride.

Heritage does not have authority. But it does have value.

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About Danny Slavich

I am a Christian husband, father, pastor, and poet. I lead Pembroke Road Baptist Church a multi-cultural, multi-generational church in urban South Florida.
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6 Responses to Some Thoughts on the Value of Heritage

  1. Ben says:

    Hm. Good insight there, I think I understand what you mean now.

    That leads me to another question, though, which is … if tradition does not have authority, what’s to stop you from being “an individual pioneer of Bible Study”.

    Maybe it is just because I am a horrible person, but in sermons I more often find myself hearing things that I am confident *are not* there than the other way around. I guess I should spend more time reading London Confessions than listening to sermons by flawed pastors. I tend to not be a super trusting person, but I don’t think I’m way off base when I say that I trust my own judgment more than most other people’s. I hope this is not arrogance, because I certainly don’t think I’m infallible, but … I don’t like the idea of trusting someone else to make decisions I should be making when I can see the holes in their armor staring back at me. If it was tradition, or a huge community making the decisions, I might feel more comfortable handing over control.

    Of course this is the same thing we’re talking about in my (old) post on staff vs. laity. In an environment where tradition does not have authority, don’t we have a responsibility to make up our own mind?

  2. dslavich says:

    I don’t think that tradition has to have authority to mitigate being an individual pioneer. It provides accountability, and thereby helps to fence in wayward interpretations.

    For example, I am not bound by the authority of the Second London Confession, but it does help to keep my theological and biblical conclusions accountable to a standard. That standard is not absolute — only Scripture is absolute. Still, it mitigates against careless and false conclusions because I acknowledge that it is overall a correct interpretation of Scripture.

    If I interpret something differently than the confession, I do so consciously, knowing why I do it, and also knowing that a difference at a certain point does not automatically negate the entire confession’s validity.

  3. Ben says:

    That’s a good point. The tradition is a kind of safety net, rather than a prison. You have the choice to go against it, but you should think twice first.

  4. Lee says:

    That is good. In practice, however, how often do you think people rely on what should be a safety net as more than a safety net? And do you think that some denominations/traditions are more prone to this than others?

  5. dslavich says:

    I definitely think that tradition can become “canonized”, and made to be more than a safety net. I see it from Calvary Chapel/Chuck Smith crowd to the MacArthur types. It happens all the time, and is an ever-present danger. Balance is one of the most difficult things in life. We’re on one side of the horse or the other often, and find it hard to stay in the saddle.

    I think it happens in all traditions, but especially in those that place more emphasis on tradition. However, those traditions are also more conscious of it. The ones I mentioned above probably do it less consciously.

    We all (and I do mean WE, including myself) do it. I find it even in a church like Crossing (our church here in Louisville). We tend to fall into a pattern of doing and approaching things a certain way. Not that Crossing does things incorrectly, but we find a rhythm and stay within that rhythm. It’s human nature.

    I think the important thing is to recognize it, and subordinate it consciously to Scripture. I must realize that my own tradition is not infallible, and assume that it has errors at some points.

    “Semper reformanda” — always reforming — must be our goal, according to Scripture.

  6. dad says:

    Never say anything bad about Chuck Smith again!
    …or you will be attacked by a squadron of Calvary Chapel doves that will do nasty things all over your black car!

    On second thought…I guess it’s acceptable if properly balanced by including a negative comment about “John MacArthur types”…

    MOSTLY KIDDING!

    Okay…really, truly it is easy to get stuck in a pattern. I used to hate the “you know, you can’t beat the hymns of the faith” people when worship choruses became popular. I was at a missions conference this week and Terry Clark led worship. (He is a VERY long-time/eighties-and- before-Calvary Chapel guy…and I love his stuff) I actually felt myself thinking “Man, this was the REAL worship music…” and then I realized…I was canonizing the equivalent of “my hymns.” We all tend that way. I have come full circle.

    How did THAT happen?

    Next…I think (yes I am cross-commenting from another subject!) that this is, in essence, my biggest problem with Calvinism. At some level, we need to discover things on our own. I fear building upon the works of man rather that getting back to the root of Scripture.

    AND AS SOON AS I SAY THAT, I admit as a (to use your words) “Smithian” I have my own preconceived (but amazingly right ;)) perspective as well.

    It’s easier sometimes (and this is not meant to be an anti-academic comment…I am proud of your education and respect those who have pursued God through higher learning) to remain simple.

    Like Paul said (sort of), ‘Christ and Him crucified’…the rest is just details.

    Oversimplified? Yep.
    Cop out? Probably.
    Common ground? Absolutely.

    …this isn’t an “amen” at the end, though.
    I intend to continue commenting on your Calvinism blog until I get tired of it.

    I love you, Danny.

    Dad

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