What the Church Has Always Taught
You've perhaps been there before: you're having a conversation with a friend where you wonder aloud why Christians hold a certain position about a hot topic. You can't see the logic behind the position, so you press in and ask variations on the question, "Why?" Eventually your friend responds, "Well, it's what the Church has always taught." Or perhaps you've been on the other side of that conversation, where a skeptical friend is pressing you. Your brain frantically claws back a Bible verse or two from the rusty edges of your memory, but mostly you hold your position because it made sense to you at some point in the past for some set of reasons... that you can't remember anymore. The only thing you remember is that you heard convincing arguments for it at some point, and they were good enough back then, so whatever they were, they are probably still good enough. All these half-baked thoughts come together with these rather exasperated words: "Well, it's what the Church has always taught!"
There are plenty of variations on this theme. We might be talking about women in ministry, or Calvinism, or gay marriage, or baptism, or something else. The conversation can come in either high brow academic tones or informal chatting over a beer, but at some point we find it expedient to reach for the argument from tradition as a sort of trump card when we're out of options. My desire in this article right now is not the relevance of tradition to any specific conversation, but the very argument from tradition itself.
To be clear, arguing from tradition has many things which are worth applauding. At its best, it can represent a desire to honor those who have come before us. We are sitting at a decade shy of two millennia of Christ followers reflecting on his birth, his life, his death, and his resurrection, and what all that must mean for those who walk in his ways. Though I think highly of my own ability to reflect theologically, I ultimately have to come to grips with the fact that there have been many, many people throughout history who were much more thoughtful, much more intelligent, and much more godly than I am, and that there's a wisdom in listening to their conclusions.
Arguing from tradition is also, implicitly, a wise acknowledgement that those ideas which at first appear to us to be innovative and better are often simply new and thus untested. They may end up being good ideas. They may end up being horrible ideas once time bears them out (Bitcoin and NFTs, anyone?). Most likely, though, they'll end up being a mixed bag of good and bad. It is the oldest wine that fetches the highest penny, as long as it has not turned to vinegar.
Many Christian "Back to the Bible" movements suffer from a kind of naïveté, a kind of breathtaking chutzpah that literally billions of Christians over the course of two thousand years all got the Bible wrong and thus we'll ignore them and jump straight back to the Bible. But somehow when I go back to the Bible, it'll be different. Unlike them, I'll simply read it correctly and draw flawless conclusions and be the first person to draw water from the well unsullied by my own muddy fingers. Consulting the creeds, confessions, and the lessons of history, then, can be a healthy correction to this kind of credulity.
On the other hand, the argument from tradition can be deployed with just as great naïveté to equal effect. Within the scope of my experience, I tend to hear the argument pulled out only when it conveniently suits the speaker, and then quietly hidden away when it does not. Over the past few decades there has been a great resurgence of interest among Baptists and baptistic Evangelicals about what the Church has always taught about gender and whether women ought to be ordained to ministry, or who can marry whom. That specific question is not the interest of this article, but it strikes me as quite ironic for Baptists to suddenly care about Church History because it seems to support the intended conclusion. Baptists, of course, do not represent what the Church has, by and large, taught about baptism throughout history or even throughout the world's present-day practice. Baptists are also out of step with the mainstream of tradition in a number of other important areas as well, and yet suddenly when it happens to support their position on gender then it becomes binding. Those other Protestants who would here be quick to point fingers at Baptists would also be wise to recognize that any stream within Protestantism is fundamentally (and intentionally!) guilty of the same irony. Even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox should be slow to point fingers on this point. We all are selective about what we believe to be the faithful extension of the tradition.
To elaborate on that last point, we sometimes believe that surface similarities between our own held position and that of Christians in the past must necessarily mean we are on the same page. Yet surface similarities are indeed not enough, or else we'd look at the claims of Mormonism with less suspicion (they believe in salvation by grace through faith, after all). If you squint, a baptism of an infant in a Presbyterian church and of a faith-professing teenager in a Baptist church look pretty similar. After all, there's water, there's some kind of liturgy spoken ("I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit..."), and there's great rejoicing afterward. While there may be differences in those surface similarities (such as whether the individual is immersed or not), the true difference lies in what those two churches believe baptism is. A Presbyterian primarily sees this rite as an act of obedience whereby a child's parents mark them with the sign of the covenant, in which they are now included. The Baptist sees it primarily as an act of obedience on the part of the individual being baptized, whereby they communicate to their community a kind of sincere intent to walk in the ways of the Lord until death. The substance, rather than the surface, is where the disagreement lies. It is similarly mistaking the surface for the substance to say that you are against the use of contraception because that is what the Church has always taught. This isn't a very good argument because the Church has by and large often taught that sex is dirty and thus is only conscionable when and only when it is likely to result in procreation. The Church thus taught that contraception was wrong because sex itself was for all intents and purposes sinful. If you consider marital sex to be generally a God-designed Good Thing™, you don't believe "what the Church has always taught," even if you still find contraception to be conscientiously objectionable, because you do so from a fundamentally different conviction. It's like saying that Baptists and Bootleggers "believe the same thing" about alcohol because they both wanted to keep it illegal during the Prohibition Era. I can assure you, the surface similarity did not imply a shared conviction.
The last problem I often observe with the argument from tradition is that what one means by "tradition" is subtly different depending on the occasion. For some, "What the Church has always taught" is just kind of the same as saying, "What we can observe about the 1st century church within the New Testament," because they make the mistake I mentioned earlier of viewing the entire swath of church history in between then and now as irrelevant or apostate. In a similar way, sometimes all that is meant by the phrase is, "What my pastor said when he preached on the subject this one time." This comes from the naïve—forgivable, but naïve—idea that my church must be a faithful representation of what the Church has always taught simply because I know and trust these people.
Magisterial Protestants understandably view the confessions that undergird their lowercase-t traditions as a faithful portrait of what the Church should believe, and that can sometimes slump into viewing those confessions as what the Church has always believed. While respectable, the Westminster Confession or the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Augsburg Confession represent streams rather than the stream. This instinct, though, leans toward what is perhaps the best we can do as far as ascertaining what "the Church has always taught," namely the ecumenical creeds.1
There is something rather remarkable, when one considers all the many fractures and divisions within Christ's Church, that the Baptist and the Presbyterian and the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox and everybody in between could all stand together and recite the Apostles' Creed and... all agree that it faithfully represents what they all believe! At a mere twelve lines long, it is certainly not summarizing everything they all believe, but it is nonetheless notable in being something of which they could reasonably say, "This is what the Church has always taught":
I believe in God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,
who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried,
descended into hell, rose again from the dead on the third day,
ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty,
who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
Its minimalism is somewhat of a problem though when we want to ask questions like, "What has the Church always taught about ordaining women?" The Apostles' Creed says nothing on the subject. It says nothing about contraception, nor about whether sex is good or sinful. It says nothing about whether baptism should be by immersion or not, nor even anything about baptism at all. What has the Church always taught about controversial doctrines such as the Perseverance of the Saints? Is there one true, orthodox position on the relationship between God's sovereignty and human responsibility?
In cases like these, we might go to lesser-known statements (the Second Council of Orange is interesting to read in relation to questions about sovereignty and human responsibility, for example) or to the writings of individual Church Fathers, theologians, and scholars. This allows us some insight into what Church leaders of a given era taught about a subject, but that is not the same thing as what the Church as a whole taught. Saint Augustine, a hugely influential figure upon the shape of the Roman Catholic Church, nevertheless indexed a lot harder on God's sovereignty than the Roman Catholic Church did (or does), and so it's illegitimate to consider Augustine's writings as always representative.
At its worst, this can look like an author cherry-picking a particularly juicy sentence or two from Ambrose or Chrysostom or Gregory of Nazianzus as a naked appeal to the authority of tradition, as if that one sentence should be considered to be "what the Church has always taught" simply because it's from a long time ago. It's not that those writers are irrelevant to the conversation, but that we must tread carefully and honorably in the way we retrieve their theological, ethical, or social arguments.
History, its lessons, and the convictions of those who have gone before us is something we must honor, in the same way that we would want those who come after us to honor us. It's a way of loving our neighbors-in-time as ourselves. I am of the opinion that church history and the teachings of the church historical should be brought to bear more often than they usually are, but that to do so must mean more than simply saying the phrase, "[My position] is what the Church has always taught." It is a vacuous statement on its own, and merely serves to shut down sincere dialogue.
We who sit on the shoulders of the Protestant Reformers necessarily sit on the shoulders of scholars who cried, "Ad Fontes! Back to the sources!" We must take this take this to mean using the original sources in conjunction with tradition, because it allows us to see where we got off track throughout history. It should not be used as an argument for ignoring tradition. One of the other Reformational slogans, semper reformanda ("always reforming") implies an awareness of and respect for what the Church has taught over time with the willingness to repent not just of bad practice but of bad belief as well. Semper reformanda is not a permission slip for "Believe whatever you want," but is rather a call to take up the cause of extending the tradition in a faithful way to give guidance and wisdom to new times and new situations.
My overriding desire with this article is to plead for those who know little of Church History to gain enough awareness of it that they begin to see that the phrase, "What the Church has always taught" usually does not carry the weight it implies. Tolle Lege!
For the sake of simplicity, I'm not going to get into the filioque clause here.↩