In Defense of Tradition

To many of us, tradition is the antithesis of authenticity. We believe that if it is not inspired by our own experience or articulated in our own words, then it is somehow inferior or less authentic. Allow me to humbly challenge that notion. When we use the word “authentic,” we could mean a few things. We could mean true to design or origin, as in, “This is authentic Malaysian food!” We could also mean true to the facts, as in, “This movie is an authentic account of the Holocaust.” Somewhere along the way, thanks no doubt to an egocentric Enlightenment philosophy, authentic has come to mean true to myself.
Since the “Liturgy” post created such a stir, I thought I would write a follow-up piece, this time with a slightly broader, though I suspect equally controversial, angle. My intent with the previous post was to not to hold up an Anglican liturgy as the correct way to worship. In fact, if you read carefully, you caught my suggestion that every church has a liturgy. Indeed, many of your comments alluded to the so-called “contemporary” (as opposed to “traditional”) churches starting in much the same way every week and employing the same general service flow and song selections. The response from my “contemporary church” friends seemed to indicate an embarrassment that anything we do reeks of predictability or tradition. And all of that begs the question:

What is wrong with tradition?

To many of us, tradition is the antithesis of authenticity. We believe that if it is not inspired by our own experience or articulated in our own words, then it is somehow inferior or less authentic. Allow me to humbly challenge that notion. When we use the word “authentic,” we could mean a few things. We could mean true to design or origin, as in, “This is authentic Malaysian food!” We could also mean true to the facts, as in, “This movie is an authentic account of the Holocaust.” But somewhere along the way, thanks no doubt to an egocentric Enlightenment philosophy, authentic has come to mean true to myself.

So when you say the phrase “authentic worship“, some people mean a worship that is true to me. But authentic worship has more to do with being true to the Scripture and God’s designs for worship than it does with being true to yourself.

Viewing authenticity in this light, tradition plays two significant roles in our Christian life:

1. Tradition is a way of preserving truth.

If I want to cook authentic Malaysian food, I would do well to learn my mother’s recipes, grind up the spices with a mortar and pestle, and follow each step to a tee. I would be carrying on the tradition. As several of you noted in your comments, the creeds are not simply nice phrases. They represent hard-fought beliefs that preserve orthodox truth. Since there is nothing new under the sun, there might be more reason to be suspicious of anything that claims to be “new truth.” God’s truth is very old indeed.

This belief that worship or prayer is only valuable when I come up with it on my own is the first step toward error. It is tainted by a quiet arrogance that pretends we are the first to set foot on hallowed ground. When we do that, we are like Chesterton’s man who plants a flag on a new island, only to discover that his “new island” is England. Whatever ground we cover in worship and prayer, someone has been there before us. That is not to say we should not take the journey for ourselves; it simply means that there are maps drawn by those who have gone before—from the saints in Scripture to the Fathers of the Church. Only a fool would set out on a long, mountainous trek without a map or a guide.

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2. Tradition is a means of reinforcing a desire.

Last year, my wife, having had two babies, decided to run a half-marathon (13 miles!). To train for it, she and her friends went running three to four days a week. Here’s what amazed me: In all the training, they never actually ran 13 miles at once. They started out running a mile. Then they increased it to three miles. As the race approached, they were running five to six miles at a time. I was worried that they wouldn’t be ready. But I hadn’t understand the value of a routine. A routine is doing what you can do today in order to one day do what you cannot. They kept running a distance that they could do and they stuck with it on cold days and warm days, busy days and lazy days, and sure enough on race day in San Francisco, they completed the half-marathon in a healthy time frame.

If you say you desire to seek God but tire of doing the same thing week after week, then all you have is desire. But desire can be frivolous and fleeting. What you lack is discipline. Or, quite simply, the willingness to do something even when you’re bored with it, to stick with it long after the “shinyness” has worn off. If we need to write more songs or design more light shows only to amuse ourselves and keep us focused (nothing wrong with doing those things; I’m pointing to the reason for doing them), then we have not yet understood that a worship tradition—a worship routine, if you will—is how we reinforce our worship desire.

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