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Catholics, Orthodox, and not a few Protestants have been known to reject theological novelties with a wave of the hand and an appeal to tradition. “Shouldn’t we follow the tradition rather than the judgments of an individual scholar?” Sometimes the modifier “idiosyncratic” is added to “judgments” for rhetorical oomph. “Tradition” is implicitly capitalized, for who can argue with a capital letter?

It’s an odd appeal coming from Protestants, who would seem to be pre-committed to the possibility of fresh directions in doctrine and life. In uncharitable moments, I wonder if this dismissal translates as “I’ve never heard that before.” But the skepticism to new ideas arises from genuine worries and genuine wisdom.

On the one hand, it expresses a moral concern. A theologian driven by a lust for innovation will end up in heresy or find his desires happily frustrated, like Chesterton’s explorer who sailed the globe in search of exotic places only to plant his flag on the coast of Cornwall.

There’s also an epistemological concern. Tradition rests safely on the consensus of centuries, while new ideas wobble unsteadily. There’s wisdom in that instinct, but we shouldn’t assume that truth has to be timeless in order to be true. It would be an error to say that we can only know things that emerge contingently in time. There are timeless truths, and we can know them. The sun has always risen in the east and set in the west, and folks have always known that. The fact of God’s existence didn’t come to be a fact one fine spring day in 2844 B.C. Yet it’s also a mistake to think that every truth must be an everlasting-to-everlasting permanent truth. Once it wasn’t true that Napoleon escaped from Elba; then he escaped, and “Napoleon escaped from Elba” has been true ever since. In 10 B.C., it was true that no one had ever risen from the dead. Now that Jesus has risen, it’s true that someone has risen from the dead. Now that it’s happened, it’s true for all time.

Christians believe that Jesus is the Truth, and he is the Truth precisely as the Son incarnate as a historical person, born at a particular place and time, speaking a particular language, addressing the questions and problems of first-century Judaism. He deals with the questions and problems of all times precisely by acting in a particular time.

Other truths are timeless but only grasped gradually. Gravity had been pulling fruit to the ground for millennia before Newton offered a theory, water was H2O long before anyone knew it, and until fairly recently genes were doing their genetic thing in secret. Most theological “innovations” belong in this category. God’s eternal triunity was not unfolded until the Incarnation, and its fuller implications began to be grasped only during the battles of the first centuries of the Church and are still being (beginning to be?) grasped today. From this angle, an individual’s “idiosyncracies” might provoke a development in doctrine rather than a break with tradition.

So the worries and cautions are real. At bottom, though, the objection to innovation undercuts the historical character of tradition. Traditions aren’t just there. Few can be traced back to Eden. Traditions are initiated, within history, by individuals who might well be considered idiosyncratic. Augustine’s “psychological analogies” for the Trinity became de rigueur during the Western middle ages, but they weren’t before Augustine made them so. Someone was the first to use “person” to answer the question, “Three what?” Somewhere, someone invented the term “transubstantiation.”

Creeds carry the weight of a council, yet the councils depend on the contributions of individuals. Someone—perhaps Constantine—proposed homoousios at Nicaea. It was new term, and proved to be a controversial one. The letters of Cyril and the Tome of Pope Leo were crucial to the eventual decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. “Separated brethren” was coined by somebody, and it’s too felicitous a phrase to be the product of a committee. We Christians believe that councils are guided by the Spirit, but their decisions are the product of individual human effort, and human innovation, nonetheless.

Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy argued that traditions always grow from seeds sown by singular individuals. Before there was a Franciscan order, there was the man Francis. Once there was only Luther; now the world is peopled with Lutherans. What is a tradition if not the persuasive claims of an individual, repeated?

Appeals to tradition become deeply unhistorical when they treat doctrinal formulations, creeds, and confessions as if they were permanent features of the landscape, as natural as falling apples and the rising sun. To be deeply historical is to be open to the possibility of another Francis, another Luther, another homoousion. It is to be open to the idiosyncratic individual scholar. Newman was mistaken: To be deep in history is to be open to the possibility of Protestantism.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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