Many theological and ecclesiastical controversies—perhaps all controversies—boil down to how the controverting parties relate to tradition. How aware are they of themselves, their interpretation, and the tradition they are interpreting itself? For example, the recent condemnations of the Federal Vision by a PCA committee display the ignorance to which Reformed confessionalism can be subject. The committee members were blind to their own status as living, historically grounded interpreters of a dynamic tradition. In my opinion, they treated the WCF as a decalogic formula, a-historically perspicuous and equal to Scripture in authority.
What could the atheist (onetime Nazi) German philosopher Martin Heidegger have to say to theology? He claimed that we are simultaneously free from and bound to tradition, that interpretation of (traditional) texts is carried out within the gap between past and future insofar as wee are free from the past yet also on the basis of the past—free for the future. We set out from the launch pad of tradition, distancing ourselves from it yet always looking back to it as we trace the trajectory of our interpretation. Future vector takes the past into account while adjusting it to the unique counter-forces of the present. Put otherwise: present interpretation is a variation on tradition’s theme, an improvisation in harmony with the past yet responsive to the present historical, doctrinal and cultural context:
“If we wish to free ourselves from this tradition in one respect, this does not mean somehow pushing it aside and leaving it behind us. Rather all liberation from something is genuine only when it masters and appropriates whatever it is liberating itself from. Liberation from the tradition is an ever new appropriation of its newly recognized strengths.”
—-Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)