Tradition vs. Ritual

In last evening’s Adult Forum the topic of tradition as a medium of divine revelation and instruction came up.  My Lutherans rightly pointed out that tradition does not decide doctrine, but all doctrine is decided by Scripture alone.  But during the discussion I discovered that while they rightly confessed that all doctrine is defined, decided, and given by Scripture, they were confused about what tradition meant. They wanted to say that tradition is unnecessary and even harmful, but were caught by the fact that the apostles speak of maintaining the traditions.  It occurred to me that the confusion happened because they had no working distinction between tradition and ritual, a distinction that is as important as that between Law and Gospel.

The apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth (ch. 11) that he commends the Corinthians because they maintain the traditions he gave them.  He writes to the Thessalonians (ch. 2) that they should “stand firm and hold to the traditions” that they were taught by him and the other apostles.  The Apostle commands the same church “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (3:6)  It seems that tradition is apostolic and not to be made void.

On the other hand, the Apostle says to the saints in Colossae, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (2:8)  Tradition, then, is either apostolic or it is not. If it not apostolic then it is not to be followed as if it came from the apostles.  So what are the apostolic traditions?  (No, this is not a plug for St. Hyppolytus, though one could do far worse.) In a nutshell the apostolic traditions are the sacraments.  By these traditions we participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  By participating in the traditions we participate in the life of Jesus. So Baptism brings life and salvation; absolution brings life and salvation; the Holy Supper brings life and salvation; preaching brings life and salvation.  No, not in the same way or even along the same lines, but in the end, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.  That is participating in the life of Jesus who is the Life of the world and her Savior.  I know I’m painting with broad strokes, but my point is not to argue the nuances of the sacraments but to say that they are the mysteries of which the apostles (and so the apostolic office) were made stewards (1 Cor 4:1).  These mysteries invite us to participate in the greatest mystery, God in flesh made manifest.  By the mysteries of God we remain united to Christ and so to God, waiting for the consummation of the age when the dead are raised.

And unless we maintain these traditions we will not be those built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  We will not be among the saints of God.

But ritual is not apostolic tradition.  Ritual surrounds the traditions, but they are not the traditions.  You can’t have the traditions without ritual, but the two are to be distinguished.  So it is true that we must participate in the Eucharist, but we don’t have to kneel or use a common cup or break a single loaf of bread.  Neither must we sing the Agnus Dei or chant the Verba.  On the other hand, there is no Lord’s Supper if it is not done with the Verba, in the congregation, and with the confession of faith (1 Cor. 11).

Ritual can be decided by two chief factors amidst some minor ones.  The first thing to consider is what ritual will best convey what is happening, why it is happening, and what the significance of it is.  This is not a two minute explanation in front of the assembly, but the ritual doing what it does: teaching and supporting the tradition.  What is best practice according to the faith and apostolic instruction?  The second thing to consider is the history of the saints from whom we received both our ritual and the tradition it carries.  This will keep us from going it alone or become innovative.  We should not easily or inadvisedly ignore the Church’s ritual just because we don’t like it or it doesn’t make sense to us.  Rather we should let the ritual teach us.  These two chief factors breed reverence.   Irreverence is mockery and God will not be mocked. Reverence is not optional and it is the job of ritual to make sure we are at least outwardly reverent.

So what is bad tradition?  Bad ritual is ritual that allows or even promotes irreverence.  Bad tradition is anything that is said to bring us to and in Christ in the working of the Spirit that raised Him from the dead but does not have the witness of the apostles to go with it.  In short, bad or wicked traditions are those things that promise to deliver the mercy, grace, and favor of God, as the sacraments do, but do not have the Scriptural foundation of the sacraments.  These traditions are the teachings of demons because they mislead a person into false belief.

On the other hand, a congregation can have bad ritual but maintain the traditions of the apostles.  That’s not ideal and we should not settle for bad ritual, but it can happen and does more often that we are aware of.  But good ritual does not sanctify bad tradition.  So the distinction between ritual and tradition is important, even vital; especially in our day when so many are divided on the issue.  Perhaps we can add a thesis to Walther’s theses on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.  Something like this: “A preacher has not properly distinguished the Law and the Gospel when he preaches or teaches in such a way that the hearer thinks that he can be saved without the apostolic traditions or when he thinks that tradition is nothing more than ritual.”


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