Articles From Leben–Historic Christianity

Does “tradition” validate truth?–from Leben 3


My wife and I and two of our sons stopped in Italy last year en route to the wedding of a dear friend and spiritual daughter and sister in Germany. We spent what time we had in as many museums and galleries as we could squeeze into a very compact schedule.

We must have seen a thousand or more paintings, mostly pre- and renaissance era, on various “religious” themes. We were all most moved by Michelangelo’s work—the unbelievable Sistine Chapel and various sculptures in which he dared represent more wide-reaching themes than had any artist before him: God the Father, Moses, a nude David,  a massive Mary holding the dead Jesus in her arms. Michelangelo was certainly a “bold thinker” of his time.

The many images of God and Jesus—from Michelangelo’s enormous “Last Judgment,” to tiny Byzantine icons of a mere two inches—have been swirling about through my brain ever since. I have wondered what the most representative picture is that accurately characterizes what most Christians throughout history have thought of God. Has historic Christianity truly envisioned Jesus as unsmiling and dour, who, with his Father, will wield thunderbolts of final judgment against humanity? Do these renaissance paintings in fact portray God and Jesus as they were thought of at the time, images that  were so visually stunning that they deepened themselves into tradition in the coming centuries?

As we sat and walked about the Sistine Chapel, I could not but be drawn back and forth between the two most famous of its frescoes—the wonderful image of Creation in the middle of the ceiling, and the haunting array depicting the Last Judgment occupying an entire adjacent wall. Both are truly masterpieces of art and theology. Yet even bold-thinking Michelangelo could not escape the prevailing theological conception of God’s ultimate judgment, which he made paramount over all other aspects of the Biblical story. How could such a man, I wondered, who captured so tenderly the Father-love of creation, with God extending the finger of life toward Adam (a wonderful and beautifully true image!), then portray such an angry Jesus sending half of creation away from him? The two frescoes seemed to represent a reversal of the modern theologic schizophrenia about God (a loving Jesus protecting us from a wrathful Father) presenting instead a compassionate Father and angry Jesus. What is it with us—that believers of every generation cannot, or will not, believe what Jesus said: I and the Father are one.

This art of Christian tradition sent me reflecting yet further about “historic” and “traditional” Christianity on a larger scale, and the esteem in which many hold that “tradition.” The question rose within me: What role ought tradition rightly to play in our doctrine and in our perception of truth? Is the historic tradition of Christianity—with its paintings, its orthodox theology, its portrayal of God’s nature, its general interpretation of Scripture, its church structure— representative of truth on a widespread scale?

A book was released last year with which some of you may be familiar—If Grace Be True by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland—on universal reconciliation. The reaction by the evangelical media was knee-jerkingly predictable and patronizing: “…the book unfortunately goes beyond traditionally accepted biblical grace… Christianity as most evangelical Christians know it is severely compromised here.” Another reviewer spoke of the authors’ rejection of “the church’s traditional doctrines of salvation and eternal justice.”

My response was not one of surprise. You come to expect these things, and don’t really expect Christians in officialdom to be able to think in fresh ways about controversial topics. Orthodoxy has to preserve itself however it can. The means by which it does so is often with eyes and ears closed to potential revelations of truth from outside its own self-erected borders.

The two reviewers obviously feel that historic Christian “tradition” somehow stands as an overarching validation of scriptural accuracy. As I pondered their words, I wondered when ”the church’s traditional doctrines” became such a bulwark to protect and preserve high truth.

Historic…or true?

The question I found myself asking was this: When did “historic Christian tradition” emerge as such a shining beacon of virtue, integrity, wisdom, Christlikeness, and scriptural purity?

I was a little confused. For I look back on the 2000 year history of the Church with just the opposite perspective, with sadness and grief that God’s people have so poorly carried out the instructions and followed the example of their Master, and, because of that widespread lack of obedience, have so inaccurately envisioned Jesus and his Father, and thus so thoroughly mistaken much of Scripture’s truth. If we look to what has been “traditionally accepted” through the history of the church, it seems we’re going to find ourselves in trouble.

Are “historic Christianity” and “traditionally accepted doctrines,” terms that we simply pull out of a hat when we want to stamp a certain point of view with an air of authenticity, like “evangelical” or “scriptural”?

But what do such terms really mean? Does being “historical” make it right?

Speaking for myself, I don’t care if an idea has been held by believers throughout “historic Christianity,” or if it represents the “traditional doctrine” of the church. But I care with all my heart whether or not it is true.

There is a big difference. It is perhaps a difference church leaders within historic Christianity have not paid close enough attention to.

High truth

It is my deep belief and conviction that the summital truth of the universe, and the essential and foundational message toward which Scripture points and in which history itself culminates in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ, is this: That God our maker is not a mere “creator” in the abstract but is our very personal Father, our Abba, a good and patient and forgiving Father who desires to live in intimacy with all his creatures in a oneness of joy and mutually flowing and responsive love. His is a Father-love that is easy to please yet hard to satisfy until we submit to become fully his sons and daughters. He will rid both our hearts and the universe of sin because he will have us be his perfect and blessed children. His is a Father-love to which we have the opportunity as well as the duty to respond in the willing self-chosen obedience of childship. It is this Father-child relationship which Jesus came to example to us that we, his younger brothers and sisters, might learn how to enter into it, imperfectly but substantially, while yet in this life by yielding our own wills into the perfect will of the Father.

Though there is no such thing as a “Phillips doctrine,” and I reject the term even as I utter it, if there were…that would be it. Or something to that effect.

If ever I stood outside “historic Christian tradition,” however, it is with such a statement of belief. For this is anything but the portrayal of God’s nature and purpose that his people have presented to the world.

Low imagery

Throughout the Old Testament, God was known as the great and terrible Jehovah of Sinai, a remote being of smoke and fire on whose face man could not look lest he die. It remains a mystery to me whether such was God’s intent—to represent himself so differently than the garden life of Genesis 2 and than the reality Jesus later clarified—or whether such images were necessitated by so many centuries of superstition and unbelief that there was no way he could begin to reapproach a mankind that had become so depraved as to have forgotten him other than in such obscure forms. Fatherhood was apparent in the garden. Yet within a few short chapters of Scripture, it had all but vanished from the consciousness of men, thereafter only to appear in a few brief glimpses through the occasional eyes of childlike prophets and kings, until that wonderful night in Bethlehem, after which all mankind would have the opportunity to know Fatherhood again in its fullness.

And yet the sad, indeed the heartbreaking reality that surely brings tears to the Father’s eyes, is that since the time of Jesus, when God’s Father-nature was so clearly and fully revealed (If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,) God’s people—now calling themselves Christians as well as Jews—have continued to present a Sinai-picture (now infused with “Christian” symbolism but none the less an image based on old covenant principles) not an Abba-picture of God’s nature to the world.

If you have any doubts of that, all you have to do is spend a day or two in Florence or in the Vatican Museum in Rome to see how God was portrayed to the world in the early centuries of the second millennium a.d. Nor did the reformation do much to alter that imagery. The style changed, and the imagery became more realistic and personal. But the essential character of God (with the exception of Michelangelo’s ceiling) remained substantially the same. The God portrayed by the Protestants after Martin Luther was in most respects the same as what had come before.

Traditional Christianity, it seems to me, in its portrayal of God, is succinctly summed up by Jonathan Edward’s fiery sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” and the sandwich board prophet proclaiming, “Flee from the wrath that is to come!” May God forgive the centuries of unbelief that the church (Catholic and Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican) has perpetuated since the radiant voices of Mark and Paul and John and Luke, and the Lord himself, were silenced, and the church lapsed into an old covenant interpretation of their words. May God forgive us for replacing the dear Abba of Jesus’ heart with the fearsome Almighty tyrant of Sinai required by the unbelief of a stiff-necked and rebellious people both ancient and contemporary, both pre-renaissance and post-reformation—more intent on punishing sin than drawing his children to his breast—then mingl-ing with that Sinai image through the years the election of Calvin and the misunderstood hell-fire of Jonathan Edwards, at length obliterating altogether the loving Father of Jesus Christ in favor of a grotesque and more than half-pagan image of fire, thunder-bolts, and vengeance.

Do I stand outside historic Christianity in my worship of and obedience to the Father of Jesus rather than the false images of him that flow of history has produced?


How could I possibly endorse the image of God represented by the four main streams of the organized church and their traditional theologic orthodoxies between 100 a.d. and the year 1824, when a new voice was born into the world to turn the eyes of many back to our gospel origins, there to behold a Father about whom Jesus said, Now you may look in his face. Indeed, you must look into his face, for there you will discover the smile of love.

I am proud to stand outside an historic Christianity which portrays an image of an angry and fickle God. I take my stand instead with our brothers David, Mark, Paul, Luke, John, Matthew, and George and a handful of others who saw the Father as he really is, because they had beheld his face in the face of the Lord himself.

“Historic” errors

It will be obvious from the foregoing that, in my view, it can be argued that “historic Christianity” is in many instances an indictment against truth rather than a banner proclaiming it. Would we really argue that for most of its history the church has gotten it right and represented full truth about very much at all?

For three-fourths of the Church’s history, Catholicism and Orthodoxy were the Church. When it comes to church structure, hierarchy, and priesthood, the Catholic and Orthodox churches are really the only segments of Christendom, certainly no protestant denomination, who can lay a legitimate claim to represent “historic” and “traditional” Christianity.

For more than half the church’s history, people considered it wrong for the laity to read the Bible for itself. Those of us who now believe otherwise stand outside that historic tradition. It would be considered as falling within historic Christian tradition to make war against one’s adversaries and to pray to Mary. Even anti-Semitism and other racial prejudice, sadly, has roots in ancient Christian “tradition.

How many examples could we cite? It would not be mere dozens, but hundreds of traditions, doctrines, beliefs, and notions that millions of sincere Christians have adhered to…that have simply been wrong.

In speaking with one of my sons about the trinity after the article in Leben 2, we concluded that many of those who led the church through certain very necessary times of focusing of belief were indeed devout, Godly, and prayerful men. However, within the historic flow of Christendom, for every leader who has truly apprehended needed truth about God’s nature, there have been a hundred crusaders eager to see God through the lenses of their own passions, biases, and political aims.

The tradition of the elders

Much of “historic Christianity” represents what Jesus called “the tradition of the elders.”

A notable exchange between the Pharisees and Jesus occurs in Mark 7, to whose piercing truth in reference to itself modern evangelicalism remains almost entirely oblivious. If Jesus were to appear in our midst in the flesh today, I believe that an almost exact duplication of this exchange would take place with the very evangelical leaders and theologians who consider themselves his most faithful ambassadors upon the earth. As soon as he was done with them, he would go to the Vatican to engage the theologians of Catholicism in like manner, before moving on to Jerusalem. Whether his probing words would be any more successful in opening the hearts of evangelical,  Orthodox, Catholic, or Jewish leaders to more expansive truth than they were against the closed-mindedness of the Pharisees would be an interesting inquiry to consider.

As you recall, the Pharisees approached Jesus with the complaint that his disciples were eating with unclean hands, without having observed the proper ceremonial cleansing.

“So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, ‘Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?’

“He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’’” (Mark 7:5-7)

Were a similar conversation taking place today, I think Jesus would substitute for “the tradition of the elders” the phrase “traditional church orthodoxy.”

“You have let go the commands of God,” I believe Jesus would say, “and are holding on to your traditional evangelical orthodoxies. (Or substitute Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostal, Anglican, or Jewish orthodoxies.) You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to maintain your own doctrine…Thus you nullify the word of God by the orthodoxy that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Clearing the water and increasing the flow

I am not suggesting that we ignore the flow of truth that has come down to us through history. The Church was intended as God’s instrument for the transmission of life throughout the world. It has not entirely failed in its mission. Indeed, there have been notable and significant successes. The fact that God’s Word has been so diligently preserved is a wonderful legacy to the medieval Catholic church in particular, for which we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to countless forgotten brothers who labored in cloisters and monasteries all their lives against huge odds to keep it alive. And there are many such examples.

But in its portrayal of God’s Father-heart, in spite of devout men who saw glimpses along the way, the church as a whole has utterly failed. Sadly, because of a fundamental misrepresentation of God’s nature, the “flow” of life that has leaked out as a result of the church’s ministry for 1900 years has been a dripping faucet more than the mighty thundering Niagara of living water I believe God purposed his truth through the Church to be to and for the world.

What true life-giving water has gotten through, we should rejoice in and pass on. But neither ought we to ignore to what an extent a Pharisaical “tradition of the elders” has infected historic Christianity no less than it had the historical Judaism of the first century, rusting the pipes of the Church almost to the point at times of blocking the flow of truth through them altogether. Where the rust of tradition and wrong doctrine has impeded the flow of true gospel-water, we need to chip that rust away, vigorously if need be, in order that truth may gush out more freely.

It was this tradition-infested breeding ground of rust and stagnation and self-righteousness that Jesus warned his disciples against. And thus I believe it might well be said of many in our own time, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to maintain your orthodox tradition.”

The fact is, the water from the rusty dripping faucet of “historic traditional Christianity” comes out through some doctrinal pipes brown and dirty. There are many instances where our predecessors have gotten it wrong. The revelation of God is ongoing and increasing. The mighty Niagara of living water will one day gush forth to the amazement of the world. But the longer we as a Church are content with rusty pipes and dirty water, the further away that day will be. If our predecessors have gotten it wrong, it is a little silly of us to defend their errors because of some vague thing we call “traditional Christianity.”

I can hear the pious reviews of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in the 1517 issue of Christianity Today: “Ah, but the good Friar Luther has stepped outside the bounds of traditionally accepted doctrine.”

I’m sure Martin Luther would have responded to such a charge with a vigorous, “Amen! That’s why I nailed my theses to the door—because the historic Christianity of the church has grown corrupt and stagnant. I seek truth, not the tradition of the elders. Traditional Christianity has had it wrong all these years and it’s time we redressed those centuries of error.”

Where do “new” ideas  originate? 

By mentioning the book I did earlier, I am not concerned so much with this one particular set of ideas, but to set forth a perspective to guide us in responding to bold and honest scriptural inquiries. Some ideas that seem “new” will be right, others will be wrong. But how can we determine where fresh water of truth is flowing unless we come at such inquiries openly, honestly, and prayerfully?

For example, throughout historic Christian tradition, being “a Christian” has, at different times and different places, been defined as:

—Being from a Christian nation,

—Being from a Christian family,

—Being baptized,

—Going to church,

—Being a good person,

—Believing in the tenets of Christianity,

—Trusting Christ for salvation,

—Publicly professing one’s belief,

—Praying a prayer of repentance.

For 98% of the church’s history, the concept of “accepting Jesus into one’s heart” as a requisite to salvation was virtually unknown. It was not until the 1950’s, and only within that particular segment of Christendom known as evangelicalism, that “inviting Christ into one’s heart” was added to that list. Billy Graham and “The Four Spiritual Laws” ingrained this “new” way of praying a salvation prayer so deeply into the evangelical consciousness that most now take it for granted that this is the primary means by which salvation is determined.

But it is a new development within Christendom that does not represent “traditional” Christian orthodoxy. No New Testament writer employed the phrase. When telling Nicodemus about being born again, Jesus never mentioned inviting him into one’s heart. It is truly new. What are we to do with it?

Many so-called “new” insights are but the fresh flowering of gospel plants whose seeds have been so long encrusted over by orthodox elder traditions as to prevent germination. When a new voice comes along to upturn the soil, and knock the rust from the pipes so that pure water again flows out to water God’s garden and set the seeds growing in the sunlight of his true revelation, we should not reject the new flowers of wisdom because they have not been seen for generations. Rather, let us rejoice that the gospel garden is bursting to life again.

All “new” ideas do not originate in gospel soil. There exist spurious, wrong, and heretical ideas as well as true ones. Our responsibility is to distinguish—on the basis of what Jesus said, not necessarily on the basis of learned orthodoxies—between weeds and flowers, between the false and the true, between the Mary Baker Eddys and the George MacDonalds of history, as well as to rightly divide the teachings even of the John Knoxes, John Calvins, John Pipers, and Jonathan Edwards whom we have made heroes but whose teachings may not at every point represent the flowering of the gospel truth of their namesake at all.

To potential new vistas of truth, some may say, “But brother, we mustn’t deviate from the traditional doctrine.” If those new perspectives accurately reflect the spirit and words of Jesus, however, I heartily say, rather, “Let us explore the new so that we might discover more truth! These seemingly new flowers just might be growing from very old first-century seeds.”

I happen to believe, in these times of personal renewal when a few voices such as George MacDonald’s are getting through to us about the imperative of obedience, that because we are deviating from historic Christianity in certain ways, we are actually starting to get a few things that Jesus said right.