Church historian and former Yale University professor Jaroslav Pelikan once said, “Tradition is the living faith of those now dead.  Traditionalism is the dead faith of those now living.”  Last Saturday, I heard this quote as a part of a sermon I was listening to on my iPod while jogging.  Though my jog is long over, this quote continues to run laps inside my head.

I grew up in a very “traditional” church.  Each Sunday we read the Apostle’s Creed, sang the doxology, stood at the reading of the Gospel text, and sat in the multicolored hue of a stained glass window.  While I did not understand all of what I was doing at the time, I have grown to miss those traditions as an adult who now serves at a church without many of those more traditional components of liturgy.  My favorite worship songs are still hymns with four stanzas.  The repetition of the great creeds still guide my answers to key theological questions.  The sight of a stained glass window still inspires a reverent spirit inside of me. 

I think to some degree, I like to worship in places that look and feel different from the rest of my world, because God’s kingdom is different from the rest of our world.  I normally listen to rock music for fun, therefore, when I hear a rock praise song, I can tend to “groove” to it instead of declare worship with it.  Hymns, however, are a form that I only use within worship, therefore, they have a sense of “other.”  I don’t have stained glass windows in my house, but I do have a television screen.  When I am in a room without stained glass, but with a screen, I could be anywhere.  I do not normally recite statements of truth with my friends, so when I do it in a church service, it gets my attention more than a conversation I might have at a coffee shop.

In the modern evangelical church movement in the 21st century, we have tended to reject traditional liturgical practices of the past on the basis of traditionalism.  In other words, at some point in many ecclesiastical circles, God was separated from God’s Word and the One worshipped was forgotten in the midst of the text of worship.  Traditionalism became the continuation of practices that had been robbed of their meaning by mindless followers who continued to mouth the once fresh words of deceased saints, while forgetting their original intent.  Traditionalism, like that of the Pharisees in Jesus day, became intent on perpetuating their system, instead of praising their Savior.  This kind of thinking is clear when they scold Christ for healing on the Sabbath, then cheer on the blood thirsty cry to crucify that fateful Friday morning.  At some point these men and women must have been mouthing their traditions without ever really considering what they were saying, or observing the horror of what they were doing.  This is traditionalism at its worst, and it is always right for the church of today to oppose traditionalism and confront its attempts to take control of our churches.

As I sit and write today, however, I wonder if evangelicals today are guilty of throwing out the traditional baby with the traditionalism bath water.  There is a place for tradition in the church!  Church missiologist Ed Stetzer says this, “A body holds up and moves the summation of history, aspiration, philosophy, intent, ability, strength, thought, and everything else that is a person.  The body presents all that stuff and intermingles it with other lives.  That presentation affects, for good or bad, those it encounters.”  This is important because Jesus calls the Church His Body (see 1 Corinthians 12 and Colossians 1:18).  That means that the church today, as Christ’s Body, moves forward into tomorrow carrying the history and legacy of Christ with it.  This involves the tradition of the church.  The church today must walk the line between keeping tradition and not falling prey to traditionalism. 

Our churches must be places where the ancient and the future mingle together.  They must be this way, not because of our preferences or style, but because we serve a timeless God.  To “package” God as a 1990’s coffee shop or a 90 A.D. underground worship gathering is to make God dated.  This is wrongs since God is timeless.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with contextualizing truth to particular settings.  This is exactly what Christ did when He took on the form of a Palestinian man in that Bethlehem stable.  Jesus, however, was MORE than a carpenter … and His life played that out.  Therefore, while we can contextualize our ministry to the culture in which we live, we must never marry our Savior to our style … He is simply bigger than that.

That is why I love serving at a place like Wildwood.  I mentioned before that I love the ancient hymns.  One thing I appreciate about Wildwood is that we can take an ancient hymn and place it in a future arrangement with guitars and drums.  Sure, my senses want me to groove out to the rocking beat, but the words take me back to the Ancient of Days.  We do have a modern HD jumbo screen in our worship center, but we also have an old rugged cross.  We do have modern video clips, but we also teach from the same texts that Augustine read 1600 years ago.  We have a lot of college students and young people here, but we also have retirees and the elderly.  We are far from perfect in this regard, but we are engaging with God in this effort.  Ancient/Future.  Tradition without traditionalism.  This is the fine line we all must walk.

This post is not a simple story with a cute punch line.  It is a compilation of thoughts I had as I ran along the river.  What do you think?

2 thoughts on “On Pelikan, Babies, and Bathwater

  1. Mark,

    Pelikan’s quote has been a favorite of mine for a long time. It’s from a little book called “The Vindication of Tradition.” One of the things he says is that tradition always exists in tension as it adapts to keep that part of the past which is useful and meaningful and changes itself to maintain its meaning for a new generation.

    You probably know that he passed away in the last couple of years. I’m on an internet list with several people who knew him personally. He is reported to have told his son from his deathbed, “If Christ is risen – then nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen – then nothing else matters.”

    Thanks for sharing the quote. It deserves wide distribution.


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