John Armstrong on “Tradition”

By Chaplain Mike

Earlier this year, we had a series of posts reviewing John H. Armstrong’s fine book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. John writes a heartfelt, winsome appeal for Christian unity, based on Jesus’ prayer in John 17. You can read or review those posts here:

One of the chapters in YCITS asks the question, “What Place Should We Give to Tradition?” As Robert Webber has said, the question is never whether or not we should believe in tradition, but rather which tradition we will believe in. We ALL believe in and have our own traditions. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with disgruntled parishioners because I didn’t include an altar call at the end of the Sunday morning service, changed the order of that service somehow, or didn’t follow one or another of a group of expectations they had about how a church or pastor should function. What were their complaints based upon?

This was always particularly interesting to me, since my pastoral work was done in churches that supposedly based everything they did on the Bible.

John Armstrong reminds us that Christians also have a Tradition with a capital “T”.

Just as a person or family has a history and memory, so does the body of Christ. Tradition is nothing more or less than the means by which we understand this memory. This is how we know who we are as God’s people. The New Testament itself came about through three centuries of life, reflection, and discussion. (p. 129f)

Sadly, he observes that modern evangelicalism, a movement whose traditions go back only about 200 years, has had an extremely negative view of this Tradition.

Much of the modern evangelical movement has been built on schism—a schism rooted in an antitradition perspective. We thought this was the best way for a church to remain faithful. A simple study of early church history would divest us of this idea. I am convinced that as long as we remain opposed to Christian tradition, we will never solve this problem. We will keep building churches on the foundation of strong human personalities and then follow these leaders, much as the Corinthians did with various teachers in their context… (p. 131)

In the following video clip, John Armstrong talks about Tradition with a capital “T” and encourages us to adjust our perception of its value to our future as Christ’s church. “If we don’t have love for the past, we will make mistakes—not only that have been made—but we will learn none of the good things we can learn from the Tradition.”

40 thoughts on “John Armstrong on “Tradition”

  1. Hi Ron,

    I know the answer to that question is yes….and precisely so I pray things through and wait on God in contrast to just seeing what everyone else believes and what I “choose” to accept based on what I “feel” is right based on what I “think” is right. We human beings can reason our way out of things and reason and rationalize away things we unconsciously don’t lie, want, or find appealing.

    The Holt Spirit is far from nebulous!! He is a close and loving companion, a real Person whom I love!

    I believe that, based on Jesus’ own words, the Holy Spirit was to come and teach us all things. That there was much to be taught and learned that the Apostles were not yet ready to absorb and understand. The Holy Spirit unveils truth, what the church (global), and individuals, need to learn, so as to grow into the fullness of Christ. I believe He does this little by little, to those who are ready to hear and understand. Just as a child cannot understand things at the level of an adult. Spiritual growth and understanding is a process. I know by experience no matter how much the truth might be right in front of me, if for whatever reason (and there can be many for all of us) I am not open or ready to receive it or accept it…I won’t be able to. Here’s where humility comes in and the laying down before God all our human reasoning and rationalizations. Not meaning we don’t use our brains!! But that we continually take the stance that we have much to learn and our reasoning could always be wrong no matter how much sense it makes to us. No one knows the mind of God…His ways are often so mysterious.

    Prayer is life. As necessary to the soul as breathing is to the body. It is constant ongoing remembrance of God’s presence, speaking with Him and listening, praising and thanking Him for even the littlest things of each day, loving Him and letting myself be loved. When the words of scripture become part of the soul they become part of life and the Spirit truly brings them to remembrance as food for the soul and light for the moment.

    I have some basic core beliefs that life has taught me are the most essential : I am called to love, to live in and through Love, to abide in Love ” Father may they be one in US as you are in me and I am in you”, to be transformed into Love, in union with the indwelling Trinity the lover of my soul. It is at the foot of the cross, contemplating Jesus Crucified, that God enabled me to know what Love is, the depth of His Love and that He enables me to love in a way I would never have been able to.

    All other “battles” in the realm of this way, that way, this is right, this is wrong, I continually give back to God. So much energy can be and is often consumed trying to figure things out and battle things out with others. When, in the end, what really matters is how do we live our lives each moment, each day. Do we love God and all those life puts in our path.


  2. Daisey, I think I relate in a sense of lamenting over what I know to be true concerning the flesh – that it is prone to wander. In that sense I agree that we must not trust ourselves.

    Is it possible my own pride(humanity) doesn’t want to accept some things because sinful human nature rebels against God??

    The answer to that question is yes. The question is what is it that you don’t want to accept?

    You write of the Holy Spirit almost as if He is nebulous . I suggest you go to the scriptures to affirm that the source of guidance from the Holy Spirit comes through God’s word. I’m not implying that it is easy. On the contrary we must run hard, and God will bring suffering to his children – it must happen. You almost seem to be spritualizing that which is not. Go to the Word. Pray. Seek God not from your own doubts, but throguh the truth of his Word.


  3. Hi Ron,

    That statement I made was not specifically about the Papacy. I wish you would stop putting it in the forefront of what I wrote. It is only a tiny drop in the bucket of what is contained therein. It is evident this is a strong issue for yourself.

    That statement includes many things I’ve had to struggle with, come to terms with, a process that is ongoing. What I presented in that post are things I ponder and the questions I have been asking myself in the face of things I ponder. Please take note of the number of times I said “if” and also “can” I surrender….

    The only words I see right now that would better express what I was trying to share are “must I then” in place of “I must then”. I often write as I’m actually processing things within myself.

    What I know I have been and continue to work out in Prayer before God is : Because I do believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Holy Spirit has been present working within the church – by which I always mean the entire body of Christ not just roman Catholics – so, again, because I do believe the Holy Spirit has been at work and present since Pentecost what then was His involvement, how was He Present when different things were decided???….Were there decisions made He didn’t lead them towards?? What were they?? Which of the things I struggle with(my humanity: my flesh and blood, physically feels rebellion against, fights against due to experiences I’ve had) did the Holy Spirit sanctioned and inspire?? Which did He not and if so, what was He trying to make known at that time?? Is it possible my own pride(humanity) doesn’t want to accept some things because sinful human nature rebels against God??

    Ron, if this last question of mine has any morsel of truth in it I pray the Holy Spirit make it loud and clear to me. I know it is possible for my “self” to be deceived by my own self. I know that only if I remain truly humble before the Holy Spirit will I come to know what is true about matters I struggle with. This is my journey, my struggles. I know what I think could possibly be wrong. I don’t want my pride to prevent me from learning that I am wrong where I am wrong even if my humanity rebels. If I learn I am right in certain matters then Praise God that is more pleasant to embrace than the opposite.


  4. Daisey, I grew up as Roman Catholic. I know what Rome teaches. I mention the papacy because it is not some external component of the Roman Catholic church. left the church because one of its core beliefs is the Pope being the vicar of Christ, the vicarious presence of Jesus on earth.

    I came to undertand that I cannot live in a contradiction of belief with something so essential concerning the nature of Catholicism.

    You wrote:

    Though my humanity may take issue with some things and even fight against them….can I surrender to the truth that the Holy Spirit could actually have been part of the Traditions I don’t want to accept??

    What is it that compels you to believe the papacy is necessarily an instrument of the Holy Spirit? You say that “in your humanity you may take issue”. Well, if you are trying to tell me that you have no right to question the authenticity of the papacy, and that you must surrender to the Traditions that you suppose are ordained by the Holy Spirit, then you have chosen to believe that Rome has authority over you. Maybe you should be wondering if it is the Holy Spirit prompting you to question that which has been crafted by man, and not God.


  5. Ron, where in my post do you see me mentioning or talking of the Papacy?????

    If you see it, it is because it is coming from within yourself and something you need to deal with.

    The thought of the Pope/Papacy/authority was not in my mind except when I made the following statement:

    Though my humanity may take issue with some things and even fight against them….can I surrender to the truth that the Holy Spirit could actually have been part of the Traditions I don’t want to accept??

    It was a question I was asking myself, a struggle of my own I was sharing.

    Regarding the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in salvation history since Pentecost….where are you coming from to question the Holy Spirit’s Presence?? I did not, not even once, make a statement that the Holy Spirit was “only” with the Roman Catholic church; something I have never believed. Actually, true Catholicism believes in the workings of the Holy Spirit throughout the world…not just with Christians….


  6. The Holy Spirit has been actively involved with the Life of the Church since the first Pentecost.

    My problem with the full nature of your post is that The Roman Catholic Church does not singly represent the Church as it is wont to remind us. Man wants his king, and Peter fit the mold. The assumption that the Holy Spirit was working through the development of the papacy is just that, an assumption.


  7. Thank you Nick, for the affirming your own experience within what I shared about mine.
    Isn’t it interesting how many hundreds ++ of protestants of all denominations have ended up becoming roman catholic… while I’ve heard some say we aren’t even christians. There’s a website called ( I think) the coming home network. They have a one hour weekly program on EWTN (I’m not a fan of this station..). This program, however, gives one a good amount to chew on and digest. They interview previous protestants, including protestant evangelical pastors, who became roman catholics ( I’m including the roman here only to differentiate between catholics of the greater global church ).

    Anyway, I would sometimes be dumbfounded listening to their stories and at other times amazed at how much more these people valued and appreciated what they found in the catholic church than many cradle catholics. It was a source of “food” my heart and mind often had to digest, sometimes sweet but, most often bitter…then neutral… then delicious. Sometimes a long and painful process.

    Thanks again! All glory and praise to Jesus!


  8. Pagans being marched at sword-point to be baptised. The removal of most of the civil rights of the Jews. Evenutally making participation in the sacraments and submission to church doctrine a prerequisite for everyone (except the Jews, thanks to Augustine) in the new “Christian” empire. Resolving doctrinal arguments and suppressing sectarianism by using the force of the state to eliminate all competitors and dissentors.
    I could add more, but my main beef with the imperial era church was its innovation of using state-backed coercion and violence in the pursuit of religious unity — and basically placing the maintenance and advancement of its newfound power above the moral, life-valueing, love-centered teachings of Jesus and the apostles. Now I know that those were hard, brutal times and that it’s not really fair to judge that period through the lens of modern Western sensibilities — but the historical record shows that the imperial era marriage of church and state killed more Christians than pagan Rome and an untold number of stubborn pagans. What happened to loving your enemies, overcoming evil with good, and trying to live in peace with all men? Jesus called His followers to lay down their own lives for His gospel, His kingdom, and for each other. However, I don’t recall Him saying anything about snuffing out millions of lives in order to establish a worldly kingdom with His name used as an endorcement for atrocity.


  9. Daisey, your post made incredible sense to me!! I’m a “cradle Catholic” who became Protestant-Evangelical and returned to the Roman Catholic Church not quite 5 years ago, and my experiences and conclusions are very similar to yours.
    God bless!


  10. IIRC from what I’ve read, Trobisch also seems to be arguing that there was a single editor/redactor of the NT who was instrumental in forming what was included and why, including inserting some things of his own. E.g., he included both the Synoptics and John together to show there was room in the church for both datings of the crucifixion.

    I don’t have the book (it’s $75 retail!!!!!), but from the reviews and things I’ve read online, he identifies this editor as being Polycarp of Smyrna.

    Read and ponder:


  11. I’d like to pick up on the original topic in regards to “Tradition” with capital T verses t with small t. Meaning, historic Traditions that have their roots in the early church verses the various traditions all denominations have taken on as they have evolved through the centuries.

    For myself, looking at, as well as experiencing, various traditions of different denominations over the past number of years I have come to a number of conclusions. There are so many essential “threads” (term I simply use for visual analogy) that I saw, heard, witnessed and experienced from different protestant denominations that were very much at home with my Christian walk as a catholic and as a catholic religious for 15 years. Certainly there were many noticeable differences. But those “common threads” that fit so well with the woven fabric of my catholic experience always left me both amazed and sad at the same time. Sad about so many things I saw were mis-interpretations of why catholics did certain things and believed certain things which then lead to all various conclusions depending on the denomination. It often brought me to really look at what I believed and why. Sad also, because I saw things that catholics could learn from their protestant brothers and sisters in Christ that would enrich their lives and faith journey . This all strengthened my conviction that we all need to stop putting God into a box!! This is something I felt for a long time and these experiences of the past number of years just reinforced it.

    The various “threads” of Christianity have 2 parts just as real fabric. The warp (longer threads that are woven into) is the complete story of salvation history from Abraham till the New heavens and new earth under the Kingship of Jesus. The individual threads woven into this warp are the lives of each person soul that are part of this history (some silk, cotton, linen, others different types of wool etc.) as well as the various groups of persons that have been formed within this history (these would be say synthetic fabrics).

    Who has been and continues to work in between these threads is the One and Same Judeo-Christian God we all believe in. As I’ve looked back on my own journey with God and the “Traditions” from the early church, the traditions of my catholic experience and how they have been transformed over the years, and then the traditions of protestants from anglicans to evangelicals I realized that each group does not have a view of the entire cloth. Many only see there own threads or groups’ threads. Some are more inclusive. I would ask over and over “God, what is it in truth I am to believe is True??”

    Finally I came back to one essential belief that was part of my catholic faith. The Holy Spirit has been actively involved with the Life of the Church since the first Pentecost. Jesus spoke of His coming and that He would teach us all things. Jesus made it clear that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. So if I truly believe in the Holy Spirit then I must put faith into the reality of this same Holy Spirit being actively involved with the establishment and growth of the Church through all the human complexities humanity, by it’s very nature of being broken and sinful, created within the same life and growth of the Church. So how can I not be open to see that what “Traditions” unfolded within the early church were not graced with the active Presence of the Holy Spirit.

    The Church of Jesus Christ is made up of a Perfect Head and totally all broken sinful body parts. Because it is made up of sinful broken people history has known horrible non-Christ-like moments in church history. But if I believe in the continued Presence of the Holy Spirit I must believe He is in control and has always been in control. If that is true, how can I not be open to believe that His very Hand was at work in the building of the early church’s Traditions and beliefs and it’s continued growth. Though my humanity may take issue with some things and even fight against them….can I surrender to the truth that the Holy Spirit could actually have been part of the Traditions I don’t want to accept?? On the same note, can I surrender to the reality and truth that the same Holy Spirit is actively present today and be speaking new truths through those that seem to be such a different fabric of Christianity??

    Humility is essential to be truthfully open and able to hear the answer. An ever unfolding answer.


  12. I believe Trobisch is not fighting the idea that there came a time where the list became “official.” Rather, he is arguing against the idea that there was a long process of redaction in which the original writings were slowly changed into what they had become.

    That is, he is arguing that the writings themselves are all accurate and date from the first century and were recognized informally as canon very early on. I would agree with that with a couple of caveats, but that is another question.


  13. You missed the Ethiopian Orthodox who have 78 books in their Old Testament. GRIN. And, to list the Old Testament books is not enough because just in the Book of Daniel you can find four versions of the Book of Daniel, Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox.

    We all have the same New Testament, however. The Early Church Fathers did not consider it necessary to define the Old Testament in the way they did the New Testament because in the New Testament they had what they needed. Having said that, the Early Church Fathers continually quote from the Old Testament, but were not as concerned with having everything just so with the OT.


  14. The “tradition” of the altar call goes back all of about 200 years; it was Charles Finney who popularized the use of the anxious seat, where sinners sought to get right with God. This was then developed into the altar call, primarily by D.L. Moody, in the latter part of the 19th century. At that time, though, it was acknowledged that only about 10% of the “seekers” who sought out the anxious seat, or who “walked the sawdust trail” (i.e. came forward), would ever follow through to become members of the church.

    It wasn’t until Billy Sunday, in the early 20th century, that the idea that all who answered the altar call were saved came about. But historically, in spite of Billy’s teaching to the contrary, still only 5-10% ever actually became believers.

    And of course, the one who used the altar call the most widely was Billy Graham. But I seem to recall the Billy Graham Association doing a survey that found only 1-2% of those coming forward at his crusades followed through and became followers of Jesus.

    All in all, in my seldom humble opinion, the altar call is not all that great a “tradition.” 😉


  15. Devin,

    I’m glad to engage the topic with you. Much has been said about when certain doctrinal positions took hold. I understand that regenerational baptism was a part of the early church. How early though, and to what extent is it possible that error set in in the earliest days? We know by reading the NT that Paul had to squelch wrong thinking in the infant church. I guess my point is error set in immediately.

    The topic here is about Tradition. I suggest that it’s something other than resolving certain doctrinal differences (although they do matter). I’m a calvinistic Baptist who worships I sense in a fellowship that has as a great lack of covenant understanding and living. I’m beginning to believe that Tradition evokes a sense of belonging in a manner that exceeds what we’ve searched for in the name of liberty and practical living- thus we’ve become materialistic and shun the calls to be pure – i.e. we look and act like the world. Tradition I think is more about the gospel and what happened when Jesus consumated the covenant that God had planned from the very beginning. In the end we expect too little of ourselves and each other – and fear the process of being sanctified or called to come out of what the world has established as important. I believe the Tradition of Christianity calls us to greater things instead of the foolish enterprises the visible western church has too often embraced.


  16. What are the implications of the Church going off the rails from the beginning on something Christ taught and commanded us to do?

    Let me take a guess:

    That Gentiles are just as prone to fall away quickly as the Sons of Israel did at Mt. Sinai and right after that, too?

    The many warnings in the NT epistles against false teachings and falling away, etc., etc., show that it was already beginning to happen while the Apostles were still living.



  17. Isn’t Trobisch simply claiming that the canon was more or less fixed, by an edition made at the end of the second century? If so, I don’t really see how that changes matters much, because there’s a whole lot of early church history and Tradition formation that took place between Pentecost and the end of the second century. All that does is push the date back somewhat — it does not solve the chicken and egg problem of authority, really. In other words, even if Trobisch is correct, there’s still plenty of time during which the church was developing and living its life without any edition of the NT on the basis of its bishops following apostolic authority.


  18. You said “I never remember a time when I didn’t have faith that Christ was my Savior.” My youngest daughter has exactly the same experience.

    I still remember a teenage friend of mine who always flew to the altar, over and over again, suffering from guilt basically about being an adolescent with all the attendant issues.

    I totally agree with what you said about catechismal training.


  19. I have no idea by what authority he makes his assertions. But, it seems to me the only way we can truly trust anything that is supposedly part of Tradition is to confirm it by the earliest written information we have. From that point of view, a teaching of Tradition should either:

    1. Be explicitly communicated in the New Testament, or failing that,
    2. Not be in blatant contradiction to what is explicitly stated in the New Testament, and
    2a. Have further supporting evidence from the writings of the early church fathers.

    I’m not suggesting a teaching of Tradition must be explicitly stated in the new testament (preferentially) only because it is part of the Bible, but because it is the earliest written material we have from the early church and apostles. Since Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant do not disagree on this point, it seems moot to point out that the catholic church chose the books of the Bible, based on tradition (in any case they seem to have been chosen through reason and argument, not just tradition). Yes, I know what the new testament says about tradition in a positive sense, but how are we to know what that tradition was?

    Some other Roman Catholic doctrines from Tradition, aside from what you mention about baptismal regeneration and the nature of the Eucharist, seem – at least from where I stand today, admittedly as someone still investigating – to have little support in the New Testament or early church fathers. For example the bodily assumption of Mary, her role as mediatrix, etc. Of even further concern for me is early supporting material for the Tradition on Indulgences. In fact, to me it seems quite telling that the Orthodox not only reject the teaching about indulgences but claim the foundational theology which lead to that doctrine as a kind of category mistake. At least that’s what I’ve read… do not know for sure if that is an authoritative Orthodox position.

    I have no illusions we would ever try to solve these kinds of topics in Internet Monk comments. Just pointing out where at least this protestant stands and rationale behind it.

    Regarding Justin Martyr, you might find the comment on the following from Justin (I’m assuming from Philip Schaff) interesting. The commentary follows the relevant section from Justin’s First Apology:

    “And this food is called among us [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, Luke xxii. 19. this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.” Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter LXVI.


    “This passage is claimed alike by Calvinists, Lutherans, and Romanists; and, indeed, the language is so inexact, that each party may plausibly maintain that their own opinion is advocated by it. [But the same might be said of the words of our Lord himself; and, if such widely separated Christians can all adopt this passage, who can be sorry?] The expression, “the prayer of His word,” or of the word we have from Him, seems to signify the prayer pronounced over the elements, in imitation of our Lord’s thanksgiving before breaking the bread. [I must dissent from the opinion that the language is “inexact:” he expresses himself naturally as one who believes it is bread, but yet not “common bread.” So Gelasius, Bishop of Rome (a.d. 490), “By the sacraments we are made partakers of the divine nature, and yet the substance and nature of bread and wine do not cease to be in them,” etc. (See original in Bingham’s Antiquities, book xv. cap. 5. See Chryost., Epist. ad. Cæsarium, tom. iii. p. 753. Ed. Migne.) Those desirous to pursue this inquiry will find the Patristic authorities in Historia Transubstantionis Papalis, etc., Edidit F. Meyrick, Oxford, 1858. The famous tractate of Ratranin (a.d. 840) was published at Oxford, 1838, with the homily of Ælfric (a.d. 960) in a cheap edition.]”

    From: .


  20. “Even in the midst of churches trying to explain the cross it appears that not many understand what it means to be in covenant.”

    Exactly the words I wish I had used, RonN. If more pastors would stress the covenant nature of salvation, there would less folk needing that constant reassurance.


  21. In a way, it’s a microcosm of this post’s subject on “Tradition” — or more accurately, what happens when you lack Tradition: you find yourself Constantly Reinventing the Wheel.

    Or when you lack an understanding that salvation was not proferred through a cheap wave of the hand by God (I assume I don’t have to explain the free part), you find people wondering why church life is moribund and task defined. Even in the midst of churches trying to explain the cross it appears that not many understand what it means to be in covenant.


  22. Hi RonN,

    Thanks for your irenic tone.

    Your assertion that baptismal regeneration started “right from the beginning” has its legitimate detractors.

    Who are those “legitimate” detractors? Do we have evidence of any of them in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th… centuries? Even Protestant apologist William Webster concedes that “the Church went off the rails from the beginning by teaching baptismal regeneration,” affirming the unanimous testimony of the early Christians:

    What are the implications of the Church going off the rails from the beginning on something Christ taught and commanded us to do?


  23. Thanks for your reply, Rick.

    You say “Scripture” but the Catholic Church teaches it is comprised of 73 books based on her Tradition, the Orthodox claim it is 75 books, and the Protestants claim 66 books make up Scripture. So right from the beginning we do not agree on what books are God-breathed Scripture.

    How do we know that, say, baptismal regeneration was a “post-apostolic development”? The earliest writings we have, from Christians like Justin Martyr, affirm it and the real presence as things received from the Apostles. It would seem rather that by looking at what the early Christians believed and what the early Church taught, we have the best supporting evidence for what the Apostles taught to their disciples.

    C. Michael Patton asserts that there is no justification for XYZ, but by what authority does he make such a determination?


  24. As a former youth pastor, I’ve seen it over and over…a teen responds to an altar call, becomes convinced that their “first salvation experience” and baptism wasn’t legitimate, and goes through the process again.

    Until after half a dozen or more repeats, you start wondering if it was all BS from day one.

    You know, “If you want more of Jesus, pray this prayer…” kind of thing, as though they were magic words that would really do the trick if I just prayed them one more time.

    Over at Slacktivist, they actually call that “Say-the-Magic-Words Salvation.”

    In a way, it’s a microcosm of this post’s subject on “Tradition” — or more accurately, what happens when you lack Tradition: you find yourself Constantly Reinventing the Wheel.


  25. The altar call is a dilemma…often, people respond as a result of emotional experience, unaddressed guilt, or because of a crowd mentality (attend any conference involving teenagers…EVERYBODY answers the altar call!).

    I believe that many people answer the altar call with sincerity and pure motives. I struggle with pastors’ handling of altar calls, though. If someone comes forward needing reassurance of salvation, it often turns into a repraying of the “sinner’s prayer”, and becomes defined as someone’s “real salvation moment”. As a former youth pastor, I’ve seen it over and over…a teen responds to an altar call, becomes convinced that their “first salvation experience” and baptism wasn’t legitimate, and goes through the process again.

    I grew up in a tradition that was sans altar call, except for prayer purposes. I was a covenant child…I never remember a time when I didn’t have faith that Christ was my Savior. It was confusing to me later in life to go forward for prayer in other denominations, only to be encountered by well-meaning pastors and deacons intent on making sure I was really saved. You know, “If you want more of Jesus, pray this prayer…” kind of thing, as though they were magic words that would really do the trick if I just prayed them one more time.

    I’ve grown to believe that there is a time and place for altar call, and it is an important aspect in the history of American Christianity, but at the same time, I think catechismal training is the best method for developing a faith that is mature and fixed in the mind of the believer.


  26. I could say a lot about the altar call, too much in fact. The revivalistic strain of Methodism was what I grew up on. Briefly:

    Altar calls thrive on guilt. You might as well go to the altar early on, then you could enjoy the rest of the meetings.

    Some people go to the altar at every revival or opportunity. Nothing ever seems to be settled.

    When I was a kid and teenager, revivals were entertainment. Our community had a community revival when I was 14. We put up a tent. Ford Philpot was the preacher. The music was gospel songs and hymns that would rock the tent. One night my dad & I stayed in the tent all night to keep away any mischief makers. Philpot’s preaching was loud and entertaining. He had been an alcoholic who’s life was turned around during an altar call.

    Some people would “pray through” and were changed during altar calls. Drunks quit drinking (and many times became obnoxious in other ways). Some of the results were long lasting.

    Altar calls do not a seem to me to be a very deep tradition, maybe an American affair, starting with circuit riders, etc. However many churches came to see them as almost a central element of correct practice and spirituality. A written, researched history of altar calls would be interesting.

    I could go on and on. Others probably have more important points to emphasize. I moved in a different direction as time went by. Altar calls served a perceived need during a period of our history.


  27. I couldn’t agree more that for many evangelicals today, any notion of “tradition” is thoroughly despised. I couldn’t agree more that all Protestants would do well to become more familiar with church history, including traditions of doctrine and practice in the early church. Where I would exercise caution though, is in failing to apply critical evaluation to early church writings and traditions, no matter how venerable. I think of the church as a living, breathing organism that has grown under God’s providential direction, been challenged, learned, developed. Just as when we were children, we believed and thought things that we later realized were wrong; in the same way, I think some of the early beliefs and traditions were simply part of the learning process growing up. It’s not that everything new that comes along is a good thing either—-errors are introduced that we need to go back to earlier writings and traditions to correct. The point is that although the early church writings/traditions are an immeasurably valuable resource, I don’t think that any era’s saints, writings, traditions get a free ride from critical evaluation and the benefit of later development and hindsight.


  28. That sans “experience” is often considered by Anglicans to be their “three-legged stool.” I think they’d usually lump experience in with reason.


  29. I am Protestant and I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard “tradition” spoken of in a negative light. The words of Jesus to the Pharisees is the trump card for this (Mark 7). Making mention of the altar call is a very interesting priniciple to discuss the issue of tradition. Anyone have any comments regarding the altar call?


  30. Devin, as a former Catholic who now worships within a Baptist tradition I found your comments interesting. I myself struggle with a perception of Tradition, and wonder what is it exactly? I can best describe my personally sense of it as something that defines us as holy – “other than” from a cultural perspective.

    I don’t necessarily see your points concerning differing doctrinal or sacramental views as the focal point. I left the Catholic church because I believe there is great error in what it has formed as biblical views of baptism, intercession, communion and roles of authority within the church. I believe that the Catholic church has applied man-made tradition to these positions. Your assertion that baptismal regeneration started “right from the beginning” has its legitimate detractors. Also, the true basis for the reformation has never been resolved so unity as you describe it cannot happen under current conditions. Therefore, if the premise is for Tradition to be a foundation of unity for Catholics and Protestants based on these matters it will not happen unless one side changes some core beliefs.

    I tend to see Tradition as an augment to our faith helping us to be in, but not of the world, and part of a covenanting body. I’m still sorting out exactly what that means, but to me this is currently a terrible problem for evangelicals. We have deserted a covenanting view of God and ourselves, and adopted a Western contractual mindset for how we relate to God and each other. In a nutshlell too many evangelicals stand against the Tradition of how Christians have worshiped and no longer see a need to separate from the culture in a right sense. That’s a broad statement leaving me with many questions and is why I’m enjoying this discussion.


  31. This is a question that has puzzled me, too, coming from the Catholic and now Orthodox perspective. It seems to me that once you admit that it took a few centuries for the NT to become canon (as Armstrong here notes that the NT came about through a few centuries of life, reflection and discussion), you come to the question of what was the basis for the authority to discuss, reflect and canonize *before* the NT was, in fact, canonized, and during that process of discernment and discussion. In other words, it raises the question rather directly of the relationship between scripture and authority, at least when it comes to the NT. It strikes me as quite odd to say that the discernment and canonization of the NT texts was the only thing that the early church did that was “Tradition”. In other words, it seems quite odd that a body which would have been invested with the authority to canonize what the scripture was (and do so correctly) would otherwise have been mired in a host of supposedly non-scriptural “traditions” at the same time and during the same period.


  32. From Wikipedia:

    John Wesley emphasized what is known as the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” as explained by Albert Outler in 1964:

    Upon examination of Wesley’s work, Outler theorized that Wesley used four different sources in coming to theological conclusions. The four sources are:
    Scripture – the Holy Bible (Old and New Testaments)
    Tradition – the two millennia history of the Christian Church
    Reason – rational thinking and sensible interpretation
    Experience – a Christian’s personal and communal journey in Christ

    ” The United Methodist Church, asserts that “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture [however] is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.'”

    At times reason and experience have been outsized contributors, thus a danger.


  33. Short answer: Scripture is seen as the apostolic teaching that the church help organize, while specific positions on baptism was a post-apostolic development, thus not .

    As C. Michael Patton wrote (Parchment and Pen):
    “Certainly, various traditions arose in the practice and liturgy of the first few centuries of the early church, but these traditions should not be seen as a prescriptive mandate on how to do church. Neither should they be understood as an equal authority to that of Scripture. There is simply no justification to do so.”


  34. I think it is important for denominations or faith traditions to know themselves well enough to know where their traditions come from. That is, it is a good idea for church to be able to know where they get their Tradition versus their traditions. For example, classical Anglicanism often looks to a pithy quote from Bishop Lancelot Andrewes for a good summary of our Tradition:

    One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of fathers in that period – the centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.

    In a recent conference on Orthodox/Anglican relations, Archbishop Duncan followed up that quote by acknowledging that to his Orthodox brothers, Andrewes may have been one Apocrypha to short, two creeds too many, and three councils too few. Metropolitan Jonah replied something to the effect that it’s not so much he’d disagree with Andrewes as much as he’d have some different emphases.


  35. I think that Mr. Armstrong’s move toward Tradition is great (I would think that, since I’m a Catholic!). When I was a Baptist, there was no more despised word than “tradition.” it was always associated with Jesus’ condemnation of human traditions, in spite of those places in the NT where tradition (paradosis) was praised (which seems to indicate that there are two kinds of tradition: those from man and those from God).

    From Armstrong’s conception of Tradition, the challenge that seems to exist is how we are to tell what belongs in that (divine) Tradition and what does not. The Methodists and Anglicans talk about how they affirm “the Church’s” Tradition. Lutherans and Calvinists also affirm something that they think is the Church’s Tradition. The Orthodox and Catholics say that in their Churches the true Tradition lives. It doesn’t seem sufficient to take Armstrong’s view that all these ‘denominations’ are “adding to the “Tradition” and are part of it” (paraphrase).

    Finally, as RonP pointed out, a dilemma for Protestantism is the fact that the early Church’s Tradition included baptismal regeneration (right from the beginning), the real presence in the Eucharist, the three-fold hierarchy of bishop-priest-deacon and the sacrament of Holy Orders, asking for the heavenly saints’ intercession, as well as the discernment over 300 years of the canon of Scripture. How does a Protestant, without being ad hoc, accept as authentic the discernment of the canon of Scripture while rejecting as spurious baptismal regeneration (or any of the other teachings)?


  36. “And there is the fact that so much of the content of NT scripture seems to be at odds with many of the policies and actions of the imperial era church. ” RonP, would you mind expanding on that? It would be useful to know which policies and actions you had in mind. Thanks!


  37. I agree with much of what Armstrong has to say regarding Christian Tradition — and that the Western evangelical world is too much in the erroneous habit of viewing itself as somehow outside or above the stream of Christian history? I’m wondering, however, if Armstrong addresses the reality that (just like Judaism by the time Christ) Christian institutions have developed and cemented a lot of lower-case “t” traditions through the centuries — and (just like the scribes and Pharasees) they often hold to these traditions just as tightly as they do to true-to-the-gospel Tradition. I woud go so far as to propose that the militant clinging to such man-made traditions has been one of the main causes of division within Christianity and continues to be a primary obstacle to unity for the global Body of Christ.
    But where is the measure by which we can discern between tradition and Tradition? The New Testament? Armstrong, however, accurately points out that NT scriptures were written, gained popularity and acceptance, and then were finally canonized during the course of three to four centuries of church development and evolution. Can NT scripture be trusted to be free of the pollution of purely human tradition? I certainly hope so. In any case, the NT writings are the closest to contemporary witnesses we have to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. And there is the fact that so much of the content of NT scripture seems to be at odds with many of the policies and actions of the imperial era church. That leads me to believe that regardless of the changes that the marriage of church and state brought to Christianity, the prominent leaders and scholars of the church of that time were (thank God) unwilling to rewrite or edit the NT in their own image.
    And what about stuff developed after the canonization of scripture? How do we discern between the gradual unfolding of gospel truth and the adoption of that truth into the Tradition of the church and traditions that came about as a result of compromises with pagan culture, questionable thought processes, and the sheer force of popular preference?
    I agree with Armstrong that a reconnection with our common historical Tradition could indeed build some bridges back toward unity within Christ’s body. But, at some point, we woud have to reach some kind of mutual agreement on what constitutes true, God-inspired Tradition and what religious ornaments should never have been hung on the tree in the first place.


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