Tradition, Doctrine, and Practice

In my experience, I have met many Christians, even pastors, who separate doctrine and piety, the mind and “the heart”.  I have also encountered many Christians who reject “tradition” without realizing that their lives and ministries are driven by their cultural heritage more than Scripture.

While studying for my lesson on I Corinthians 15 this week, I ran across a wonderful section (pgs. 102-103) of David Wells’ book No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? in which he touches on the relationships between tradition (in a different sense), doctrine (theology), and practice (piety).

That the apostolic churches were confessional and that they confessed the apostolic teaching about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ may be disputed, but only on the most radical redactional reading of the New Testament…The apostles “delivered” the facts about Christ (I Cor. 11:23, 15:3), and interpreted those facts, and then developed the consequences for Christian life from this…All this became part of the “tradition” that was committed to faithful people to transmit to succeeding generations.  In this sense, there is undoubtedly a central place given to tradition in the New Testament.

In time, as the New Testament letters were completed and the canon was eventually closed, there seems little doubt that the whole apostolic exposition of the disclosure of God, of his character, acts, and will (especially as these were revealed in Christ), became the substance of what was confessed.  To be a believer, then as later, meant believing in what the apostles taught.  It is in this sense that apostolic succession is a New Testament truth.  Believers succeed the apostles as they accept what the apostles taught.  It is a succession not of ecclesiastical power as the Church of Rome teaches but of doctrine.

This is why the apostles not only framed the Christian faith in doctrinal terms but called for its preservation and protection in this form.  There is no Christian faith in the absence of “sound doctrine” (I Tim. 1:10; Tit. 1:9), “sound instruction” (I Tim. 6:3), or the “pattern of sound teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13-14).  It is this doctrine, or, more precisely, the truth it contains and expresses, that was “taught” by the apostles and “delivered” to the Church.  It is this message that is our only ground for hope (Tit.1:9) and salvation (I Cor. 15:2; I Pet. 1:23-25).   Without it, we have neither the Father nor the Son (2 John 9).  Indeed, Paul says that we can grow in Christ only if we stay within this doctrinal framework, for its truth provides the means of our growth (Col. 2:6).  It is no wonder that Christians are urged not to depart from the apostolic teaching they received “in the beginning” (John 2:7, 24, 26; 3:11) or from what they had heard (Heb. 2:1), for it is the “faith once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).  Nor should we be amazed to read of Paul’s admonition to Timothy that it is only by adhering to this “good teaching” that he will become a “good minister of Jesus Christ” (I Tim. 4:6).  For all of these reasons, the apostles instructed believers to “guard” this faith (2 Tim. 1:13-14; 4:3; cf. Tit. 1:9; Gal. 1:9), defend it (Jude 3), “stand firm” in it, not to “drift” from it, to become “established” in it, and to transmit it intact to succeeding generations.

No one who is familiar with apostolic teaching and practice could imagine that bare, creedal orthodoxy alone is being advocated in these passages.  It is clear, for example, both from the structure of many of Paul’s letters and from many of his specific statements, that he saw belief and practice as inextricably related to each other, the former being the foundation of the latter and the latter being the evidence of the working of the former.

I found this passage to be helpful in outlining the New Testament teaching that doctrine and practice are integrally linked.  Furthermore, Wells is very helpful in highlighting the responsibility of all Christians, but especially pastors, to guard sound doctrine.  This ought to teach us several things:

  1. Doctrine must be studied deeply and carefully.  It is a mistake to argue that we should focusing on loving Jesus, being obedient, and avoid discussing and arguing rigorously about doctrine.  The neglect of doctrine will unwittingly lead to devotion to self or culture.
  2. Pastors must be diligent to guard their church from separating what we believe from our love and devotion to God.  Those who argue that we should all just get along while ignoring real doctrinal controversy in their church are foolishly setting the church on a course for destruction into error.
  3. Pastors must be people who can teach sound doctrine and refute those who contradict it.  There is an unhealthy tendency to make pastors out of those who are charismatic leaders loved by many when the pastorate often calls for the unpopular: firm, rigorous, and zealous debate.

While Wells’ book can be difficult, he has some very excellent insight, and I recommend his books to those interested in studying theology, ecclesiology, and culture.


3 thoughts on “Tradition, Doctrine, and Practice

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