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Theological Sources – Tradition

Posted by on Feb 19, 2008 in discipleship, scripture | 11 comments

In this series, I want to discuss the various sources that inform our theology – that is, our understanding of God. For an outline, I will use John Wesley’s Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I realize that this is not new information for many of my readers. However, perhaps we can all help ourselves think about this important topic.

The word “Tradition” conjures up different thoughts to different people. Some think about the confessions and creeds that they hold to. Other think about the details of their practices. But, when “Tradition” is used in the realm of theological sources, it means that group of teachings which is handed down from person to person.

As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, “Tradition” was originally equated with the regula fidei, or the rule of faith, which was passed down from Jesus to the apostles, then from the apostles to their followers, etc. These lists of beliefs were later collected in the form of the early creeds, such as the Nicaean Creed or the Apostles Creed or the Chalcedonian Creed, and later into the various confessions of the Protestant denominations. As time progressed, more and more “beliefs” were added to the various Traditions as well.

However, Tradition is much more than a series of “We believe” statements. The regula fidei was also seen as a protection against misinterpreting the Scriptures. Thus, Tradition formed a hermeneutical fence around the Scriptures, helping readers understand the meaning of the writings.

Today, we still have Tradition. Each denomination – and sometimes groups within denominations and groups that cross denominational lines – have a hermeneutic Tradition. These Traditions guide believers as they read Scripture. Even for those believers who – like myself – grew up with a non- or anti-Traditional, free church background, Tradition plays a huge role in our understanding of God.

Thus, the same Scriptures yield both dispensational and covenantal understandings because of the Tradition of the readers. The same Scriptures yeild emphases on the sovereignty of God or the liberty of man based on the Tradition of the readers. The same Scriptures reveal either a premillennial, postmillennial, or amillennial eschatology due to the Tradition of the one reading.

Yes, Tradition still plays an important role in developing a person’s understanding of God. In some ways, this is very good. Tradition can keep someone from straying into unorthodox beliefs based upon a few select texts from Scripture. In some ways, Tradition can be bad. Tradition can cause people to over-emphasize certain texts that agree with their Tradition while ignoring or de-emphasizing other texts which disagree with their Tradition.

However, Tradition does not merely affect our understanding and application of Scripture. In similar ways, Tradition forms how we view and use Reason and logic, and to what extent we allow Experience to inform our theology. Some Traditions rely heavily on Reason, while others view Reason with skepticism. Similarly, some Traditions emphasize Experience, while other Traditions de-emphasize Experience.

As we have already seen, there is interaction between these various theological sources. There is certainly interaction between Scripture and Tradition – and the interaction works in both directions. In all Traditions, Tradition both works with Scripture and also works against Scripture. Similarly, Scripture both works with Tradition and also works against Tradition. These are good and valid interactions.

Here is a simple illustration. In Genesis, God tells Noah to build an ark. In Genesis, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. In Matthew, Jesus tells the rich, young ruler to sell everything and follow him. In John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born again. In John, Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep. In Timothy, Paul tells Timothy to proclaim the word of God. Each of these commands are given to one person in Scripture. Do the commands apply to only that one person, to a group represented by that one person, or to all people? Scripture will not answer this in all cases. However, Tradition will tell us how to interpret these various passages, and by the way, different Traditions give us different interpretations of some of these very passages.

Recognizing your own Tradition can help you understand why you interpret Scripture the way that you do. Trying to understand another person’s Tradition can also help you understand their interpretation of Scripture and their understanding of God. However, neither Scripture nor Tradition alone can completely answer the question of why we understand God the way that we do. As we keep studying, I think we will see that both Reason and Experience inform our theology. Also, I hope that we will begin to think about other possible sources of theology.


Theological Sources Series:
1. Introduction
2. Scripture
3. Tradition
4. Reason
5. Experience
6. Conclusion


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 2-19-2008


    As I read this, I was thinking about another aspect of Tradition(s). I think you made very good points. But, I would add that another aspect of Tradition is the difficulty of breaking out of a particular Tradition. Growing into different convictions can be extremely difficult sometimes because of the nature of being in a Tradition. It may keep one within the bounds of orthodoxy, but it may keep someone from growing, too.

  2. 2-19-2008

    Alan Reynolds,

    Yes, it is difficult to change an aspect of your theology which is handed down to you through your Tradition. I think this is true for theology informed by any of the sources: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, or Experience.


  3. 2-20-2008

    “Thus, the same Scriptures yield both dispensational and covenantal understandings because of the Tradition of the readers.”


    I’m pretty sure I understand where you’re coming from. I would just like to make the point that simply because one holds to a certain tradition and, therefore, to a certain viewpoint does not mean that the person is right. While two Christians can look at the same passage and understand that passage differently, one could be in error.

    I feel pretty sure that’s not what you’re saying-that truth is relative or we can’t know for certain what truth is. I just thought I’d throw that out there.

  4. 2-20-2008

    Maybe it’s my tradition speaking… maybe it’s scripture… but we also have to remember that the Holy Spirit informs our theology.

    I think it would be important if we could learn to discern whether or not what we believe is based on tradition or based on God.

    Just my two cents.

    God’s Glory,

    The Pursuit Online Store

  5. 2-20-2008


    At this point, I’m only hoping that people will begin to recognize the sources that inform their theology. Only then will people be able to judge their own beliefs. I believe that there is only one true understanding of God. I hope that with his help I come closer and closer to that understanding.


    You’re the second person who mentioned the Holy Spirit as a theological source. I’m hoping that we can discuss this more further. How do you think the Holy Spirit informs our theology?


  6. 2-21-2008

    I would assume that the influence of the Holy Spirit falls under the category of ‘Experience’ as it is normally an individual experience and should be validated through scripture.

    It was a great revelation to me when I started to see how my traditions influence my beliefs and understanding of God. Reviewing those beliefs with as much objectivity as possible has lead to some of my greatest moments with the Lord.


  7. 2-21-2008


    I think I understand what you’re saying. But, since the Holy Spirit is a person, I would probably not place him under the category of Experience. Although, it is true that the Holy Spirit can be experienced, just as we can experience other persons – both physical and spiritual persons.


  8. 2-22-2008

    Then under which category would you list him? Given the four options experience seems the most likely place doesn’t it? The urging of the Holy Spirit is a personal experience IMHO.


  9. 2-25-2008


    I agree that the Holy Spirit works through our experiences, but I also think he works through Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. For that reason, I would see the Spirit (or God, if you prefer) as a separate theological source – in fact, the true theological source.


  10. 6-9-2011

    I was wondering what would you say the limitations of basing your theology on tradition/reason/experience be? are there limitations? how important is it that we can see these limitations?

  11. 6-9-2011


    Everyone’s theology (understanding of God) is based on tradition, reason, and experience. Even someone’s understanding and interpretation of Scripture is affected by tradition, reason, and experience. But, yes, I think there is a danger is basing our theology only on those three things. Of course, God can work through those even when Scripture is not available, but he is the only true source of true theology.



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