Tradition As “Reassertion”

[My apologies for the somewhat "rambling" character of this post. It did not start out that way, but it has sure ended that way!]

In writing of several 4th through 8th century A.D. developments of Christian tradition relative to Roman culture (particularly the legend of Constantine’s baptism by Pope Sylvester), Averil Cameron writes,

This is no romanticizing of the past, but rather its practical adaptation to the needs of the present. If the men and women of late antiquity did not romanticize the past, nor were they conscious of a sense of modernity. Rather, they wished devoutly to connect with a past which they still saw as part of their own experience and their own world…The past was very real to the men and women of late antiquity: as they saw it, it had not so much to be remade as reasserted.:”(“Remaking the Past,” in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World, eds. G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar (Belknap Press, 1999), pp. 1-2.)”:

It seems that reasserting the past was quite a competitive business in the late antique world (roughly A.D. 250-800). Unbelievers such as Porphyry (On Philosophy from Oracles) tried to make Christianity a mere element of a broader pagan heritage encompassed in the work of the gods, while believers such as Eusebius (Preparation for the Gospel) strove mightily to portray Christianity as the ultimate fulfillment of imperfectly-expressed pagan truths. Both believer and unbeliever shared the same assumptions about the value of the past. Indeed, as Macrobius, an ancient Roman writer put it, “vetustas quidem nobis semper, si sapimus, adoranda est”—“indeed, if we are wise we ought always to adore that which is old [compared] to us.”:”(My translation, cited in R.A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), from a discussion on pp. 25-31.)”: The difference between believer and unbeliever lay in their use of the past (tradition) not in their reverential attitude toward it.

Nevertheless, Eusebius’ attitude toward tradition is, because of the end to which he wishes to see it aimed, almost cavalier. Viewing tradition in its pagan sense, he sees the pagan shrines as merely the homes of “dead idols” and Plato merely a dim shadow of Moses. All must be taken up into Christianity, reasserted by Christians in a Christian context, in order to be truly meaningful. As Cameron puts it, Eusebius’ attitude is “So much for centuries of tradition.” As I outlined elsewhere, St. Augustine also takes this attitude when dealing with pagan Roman claims that Christianity is a pure novelty impertinently and recklessly overturning the hallowed traditions of the Roman past. For Augustine, Rome’s claim to be the imperium sine fine (empire without end) must always be qualified by the kingship claims of Christ and the City of God, else they are just so much worthless pagan posturing.

Yet this negative attitude of the ancient Christians toward tradition in time gave birth to a new iteration of tradition. As Cameron writes, the ancients (generally) revered the past and wished to reassert it constantly so as to highlight their own present-day linkage with a still living heritage. In time, ancient Christians (particularly) followed the same path of reverence for and reassertion of the past for present purposes. Whether in the anti-Gnostic episcopal succession arguments of the early apologists or in later more expansive concepts of “Apostolic Tradition,” Roman Christians exhibited many Roman character traits. And one of these was a concept of tradition as devout reassertion of the past for the purpose of legitimizing some present concern. During the period when the Faith had to fight for its existence against entrenched paganism, Christians viewed “ancient tradition” with suspicion and thought it useful only insofar as it echoed the Christian revelation, or at least insofar as it could be made to serve revelation in a subsidiary role.:”(See Augustine, Of True Religion 4.6, and Contra Academicos.)”: But once the tempora Christiana (Christian times) had come to dominate the world “ancient tradition” became, ironically, the very watchword of catholic orthodoxy. For many of our fathers and brothers, to violate “tradition” just was the very definition of departure from the Faith.

This tension between questioning and adhering to tradition fascinates me, not just as a historical artifact but as a present-day reality. The more I contemplate it the more it seems to be simply a fundamental feature of our existence as finite creatures. The dynamic seems to me to be built into us for two reasons. First, we cannot ever entirely escape tradition. Second, as finite creatures we cannot ever know everything. Let’s take these assertions in order.

The foolishness of thinking that we can entirely escape tradition has been well stated by Douglas Wilson in terms of the contradictory aphorism, “We don’t believe in tradition. It’s contrary to our historic position.” Many forms of American Protestantism, especially radical Evangelical forms, are awash in this goofy sentiment in the form of ridiculous “Bible Only” theologies. From taking for granted the title page of “the Bible” (the canon) to uncritically-held views about what is “clearly” taught by Scripture to the very foundational narratives and historical-practical expectations of such groups, one fact is brighter than the North Star: those who think they’ve escaped tradition are in reality those most captive to it. No one can simply step outside all the things that have made him what he is and get at some supposedly “pristine” prior reality. Questions once answered cannot be unasked, personal and institutional histories cannot be ignored, and epistemological-hermeneutical neutrality cannot be obtained. No one can entirely escape tradition.

Furthermore, since as finite (time and space-bound) creatures we cannot know everything it follows that our traditions–no matter how hoary with age or how logically coherent or how much undeniable sense we think they make of reality–cannot fully encapsulate reality. Claims that if “the tradition” has addressed it all discussion must cease seem to me to be simply ludicrous. Even when they are dressed up (as some of my Catholic friends do) with well-thought out reasoning about Christology relative to Church authority, such claims, at least in Western garb, are not in keeping with the very tradition to which they refer. Traditions, as instances of the broader, inescapable class “tradition,” may not be entirely escapable but neither are they ever comprehensive and irreformable. You do not have to be Protestant to see this, either: just look at twelfth century catholic theologians such as Richard of St. Victor and Reupert of Deutz.

Given these two larger points about tradition (its inescapability and its inherent inability to be comprehensive), what are we to make of the above-discussed tension between adhering to and questioning tradition? This is where this post’s borrowed theme of the past, of tradition, as “reassertion” comes into its own. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that everyone, no matter to what ecclesiology they hold, uses tradition in this fashion.

For Catholics it is fashionable to “reassert” the past for purposes of identifying with it by simply declaring all of Church history the peculiar province of the ancient (but Christianized) Roman “empire without end.” Who cares if it was Jupiter who declared Rome to be eternal–Jesus, says Matthew 16:18, gave Peter the Keys of the Kingdom, and Peter, says Church history, gave them to his successors, and presto!, says today’s Catholic, Victor, Leo the Great, Gregory VII, Boniface VIII, Innocent III, Leo X, Pius IX, and Benedict XVI are all infallible Vicars of Christ dissent from whom is simply tantamount to rebellion and lack of faith. What could be simpler? What could be more necessary to the maintenance of faith, to the stability and continuity of our contemporary lives than this grand old tradition? Must we not devoutly reassert the past because we still see it as part of our own experience and our own world? Vetustas quidem nobis semper, si sapimus, adoranda est–and who cares about important qualifiers such as
Petrarch and Roman Pre-Eminence Sine Fine
? “Apostolic Tradition” might as well be a Platonic Form, hovering serenely above space and time, unaffected by the messy realities of life in the body. Catholics need not bother asking themselves why they think Jupiter ought to be taken as an oracle of truth, and need not bother thinking about how God might do things if the race sprung from Aeneas is not destined to be eternal, after all.

But it’s not just Catholics who do this. We Protestants more than give them a run for their money. Our theologians turn out endless books and tapes and articles about the necessity of “the solas” and “Why the Reformation’s Battle With Rome Must Continue.” We are nothing, we think, if not the direct spiritual and ideological heirs of our Founding Reformation Fathers. Our apologists keep the flames of the fearful (faithful?) fanned with ever-timely reassertions about the latest greatest “compromise” by this or that person or group, and never tire of repeating all the old stereotypes about “Romanism” and its “false Gospel” of Tridentine “works righteousness.” Don’t you dare question any of this, either. It’s ancient tradition. People shed their blood to defend it. Never mind if it makes the Faith look like restorationist Mormonism. Never mind if the categories that make the argument go are simplistic beyond belief and virtually completely unacquainted with the complexities of Catholic theology. See, for instance, Michael Pahls’ outstanding Reformed analysis of the multiple ways of reading Trent, Reversing Babel. Why don’t R.C. Sproul or any of Machen’s Warrior Children ever do studies like this?

In a milieu in which it is fashionable to thunder such silly slogans as Chillingsworth’s “The Bible Alone is the religion of Protestants!” while railing against anyone who attributes significant authority to anything outside the pages of the Bible, few of us seem reflective enough to realize that this whole anti-tradition way of thinking is itself a tradition–and one without which we cannot make sense of our contemporary experience.:”(This is not to mention such maxims as “The Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church”–a maxim that while to us seemingly occupying the same level of truth as “What comes up must come down” is, as shown in Augustine, the Medieval Theologians, and the Reformation, really quite a bad misreading of Augustine’s relationship to both Catholicism and the Reformation.)”: In other words, we Protestants, like our “Romanist” opponents, also readily and eagerly reassert the past–only we try hard to ignore the devout background chanting, “Vetustas quidem nobis semper, si sapimus, adoranda est.”

I’ll close this post by asking a hopefully provocative question about differing uses of reasserted pasts. Highlighting Catholic and Protestant rhetoric, is there any essential difference between (1) Gregory VII claiming that his total reorganization of the papacy in the 11th century was not the least bit out of accord with the ancient voice of all the Fathers and (2) today’s Protestant claiming that his whole faith is merely a faithful recapitulation of a timeless Gospel message rediscovered by brave heroes after centuries of darkness? Both claims are stories told about the past in no small part for the purpose of making sense of the present. Both claims are “reassertions” of the past which is still seen to be alive and relevant to contemporary men. Both claims are traditions, and if it is wrong for one side (the Roman) to treat its traditions as inviolable, comprehensive certitudes it is also wrong for the other (the American Protestant) to do so.

We cannot entirely escape tradition, but tradition is not always right. This seems to be one of the most profound lessons of Western Christian history. Christians can be Romans and Christians can be Americans, viewing the Faith through their respective “culturized” lenses, but on some level it seems that there must be something Christian that is neither Roman nor American (nor any other finite, transient human culture or category). The early Fathers who resisted (pagan) Roman claims about the finality of the received wisdom because they as Christians knew that Christ had superseded the Old eventually gave way to later Fathers who thought of (Roman) Christianity in exactly the same way as earlier pagans thought of their pagan heritage. But if much the same thing has happened in Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, where can we go from here?

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3 Responses to Tradition As “Reassertion”

  1. The Scylding says:

    I think this is a very fruitful line of thought Tim. Why is it so difficult to be critical of our own movement / viewpoint? Is it maybe because we fail to see ourselves as partakers in a continuing story, as characters in a play so-to-speak?

    I actually think that there are deep psychological reasons – we are afraind that if our intelectual grasp is wrong, our faith becomes void. I think this betrays a deep reliance on Reason as our basis, and not faith. In our age, we are still children of the Enlightment it seems. For those long ago, where they perhaps hanging onto Platonic Forms instead? I don’t know.

  2. Eric says:

    Just a note on the Latin translation–nobis is probably a dative of agent with the gerundive/passive periphrastic. Thus: ‘Antiquity, indeed, ought always to be adored by us, if we are wise.’


  3. Tim Enloe says:

    Thanks, Eric, but does that really change the meaning?

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