A Wesleyan Account of Tradition

A Wesleyan Account of Tradition

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What follows is a Wesleyan account of the place of tradition in Christian faith and doctrine. It is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024).

102. The Word of God in Scripture is further illumined for us by means of tradition, exemplified in the great ecumenical creeds, often spoken of as the “deposit of faith.” Tradition has been given by Christ to the world and has been preserved to the present and for every generation to come. This deposit is a precious gift; when energized by the power of the Holy Spirit, tradition reflects the light of God’s Word in many and beautiful ways. It contains ways of interpreting the Word of God and faithful lenses for understanding and teaching. Tradition also provides applications of God’s Word in the life of the Church, through the customs and practices of the Christian community, often long hallowed by time and experience.

103. But we must be careful, for tradition, while a treasure, is not a dead or static thing. In this way, it is like the Church itself, which has been likened to a mighty river that has its source in the high country of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, the teaching of his apostles and first witnesses, and the life of the primitive Christian community in those first years—itself rooted in God’s covenant with Israel and the Word of God through the prophets. That stream comes down through the long reach of history, sometimes a small channel that cuts deeply and at other times a vast flood that overflows the country around it, its course at times dividing and later reuniting, but always one and the same river.

104. The same river imagery can be used for tradition, which has its origin in the same high country, and reflects the living testimony and practice of the faithful over time and around the world down to us. Its very existence at all is a witness to the faithfulness of God, the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit among God’s people, and the willing labors of God’s servants in every age as they are filled with that Spirit and experience God’s grace afresh. Like a river in nature, this one has banks that define it, its course determined by the Holy Scripture and by the creeds and early councils of the Church as faithful interpreters of the Word. And like a physical river that picks up minerals and particles as it flows along its course, so the river of tradition also picks up matter from the times and places where it has been. Some of these additions offer new tastes and expressions to the great old flow and enhance our appreciation of it. Sadly, some admixtures prove to be unnecessary or even pollutants that, though they may abide in the waters for a time (even a long time), must be and will be ultimately cleansed from its course by the same faithful Holy Spirit.

105. Thus, again, there is a deep consistency across time and place, even while there is not sameness of expression or appearance everywhere and everywhen. Appearances and characteristics can change across time and in various places. Some teachings and practices, though not essential to the river of tradition, enhance its taste and improve its flow for a time—and this, too, is in the gift of God. Others, though they may appear pleasing for a time, must ultimately be dropped or cleared out. This, too, helps to account for how there are differences in emphasis (flow) and practice (appearance) over time. It also accounts for the possibility of disagreement among those who are drawing from the same river but have varying perspectives. Yet we can recognize a much deeper continuity that blesses all, for the same Holy Spirit continues to energize the flow and to steer the river’s mighty course as it makes its way across time and place. Tradition represents an important aspect of the faith and fellowship of the entire Church. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit to unite us in fellowship with all who have ever lived in Christ, and through our faithful practice with all who will ever live and love and trust in Jesus.

106. We do not make this journey of faith alone, or in isolation. It is a relay, and we are the present stage in that great race (Heb. 12:1; 2 Tim. 4:7) to fulfill the call and charge of God in Christ to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Others have been on this quest before us. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they have in times of strife from without and stress within produced the great creeds, which set the truly broad bounds of faithful Christian conversation. The creeds are like a compass, which is not north but points steadfastly to the north, so that we might not lose our way and wander off the path into danger and the confusion that often produces heresy.

107. Others on the road before us have passed along insights to guide, equip, warn, and help us. They are both men and women, drawn from every place and people where the gospel message has been embraced. Among these we can name the great fathers and mothers of the Church who carried the faithful message after the apostolic era and formulated the great early statements of faith. We can point to Late Antiquity, the Medieval era and its counterpart in the East, the “Byzantine commonwealth.” Beyond the Mediterranean world we can point to the ancient Christian communities in India and Ethiopia and elsewhere. We can find this faith witness amongst the various Reformations and the Renaissance, and later in the great revivals and missionary enterprises, particularly the trans-Atlantic Evangelical Revival that swept up the Wesley brothers and so many others in the Spirit’s wake. With each era comes great insights and new applications—all grounded in the same Scripture and forming part of the long tradition as applied by the guidance of the Holy Spirit into the everyday experience of God’s people. This “experience,” properly understood, is redeemed and made alive by grace, and transforms lives, and even communities and cultures.

108. John and Charles Wesley pointed us to the tradition and contributed to it. The Wesley brothers considered the early church to be the purest expression of faithfulness to the revelation of God. They tested the faithfulness of all other periods and expressions of the Christian faith by the early church. They did this because they saw the early church as best embodying the ideals of the visible church made possible by the Spirit. Wesley saw echoes of this purity throughout church history, highlighting the work of the Reformers in their attempt to return to that purity, particularly the Reformers of the English Church, the compilation of the Book of Common Prayer, and the work of Anglican theologians in the seventeenth century. The key for the faithful today, however, is not simply to emulate Wesley. He saw these eras as faithfully pointing to Christ, and so he embraced them. Likewise, this is why we embrace Wesley. He is not the point, nor would he want to be. He points to Christ.

This is an excerpt from The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness to Christian Orthodoxy (Seedbed, 2024). Included are 213 articles of faith centered around:

  1. Section I
    God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  2. Section II
    Creation—Image Given and Marred
  3. Section III
    Revelation—The Image Revealed
  4. Section IV
    Salvation—The Image Restored
  5. Section V
    The Church—Life in the Image
  6. Section VI
    The Fullness of Time—The Glorified Image

An appendix in the back offers discussion/reflection questions for each section. Get it from our store here.


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