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Trust the Tradition ©

Last Tuesday I took an unusual trip. In one sense, it was a journey that had been decades in the making.  In another sense I had the appointment on my calendar for about three months and my drive to Oklahoma City took about four hours. Tuesday, March 8th, I drove to Oklahoma City to spend the afternoon with the eminent retired theology professor (Emeritus) from Drew Divinity School Dr. Thomas Oden.  Tom Oden was the Henry Anson Buttz Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University in New Jersey from 1980 until his retirement in 2004. After retiring he continued to teach and write at Drew in the status as Professor Emeritus. My first introduction to Dr. Oden came in seminary classes at Perkins School of Theology, SMU in 1973. I still have Dr. Oden’s book The Intensive Small Group Experience which Professor Dick Murray (a revered Professor of Christian Education) assigned as a required reading for class. Later that year, I read Dr. Oden’s Kerygma and Counseling; Toward a covenant ontology for secular psychotherapy. But for me, his watershed work was book entitled Agenda for Theology which was later edited and updated and reissued as After Modernity...What?. In an ecumenical clergy lunch study group in Harlingen, Texas, I encountered my own path for learning and understanding the Christian faith over the coming decades. While not the same, my theological journey parallels Dr. Oden’s. He has been a mentor along the way.  For me the trial has led from the sweeping theological fads of the late 20th century (Bultman, Tillich, process theology, etc.) into the great consensual tradition of historic Christian Orthodoxy.  I am currently reading Dr. Oden’s latest book The Rebirth of African Orthodoxy: Return to Foundation. Published by Abingdon Press in preparation for General Conference, it can be purchased through Cokesbury beginning in April. I recommend it highly.  It challenges so much of the casual misguided theological assumptions of our time. As I have stated often in sermons and speeches, the theology we have been largely pursuing for the past half century or more is largely bankrupt. Our hyper reaction against evangelical fundamentalism (a mistake of the first order – evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not the same!) and uncritical embrace of enlightenment intellectual biases has led us into the cul-de-sac of a vague therapeutic moral deism (to use the term popularized by Dr. Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary).  We need to think and pray our way beyond where we are now and back to a theology that is genuinely orthodox, healthily open (that is to say both orthodox and non-rigid) and truly Wesleyan.  For me, Tom Oden has been such a guide in his rediscovery of orthodoxy and African Christianity. As we neared the end of our time visiting together in his study, I asked him what message he most wanted to impart to me. He reply, almost softly, thoughtfully, “trust the Tradition.”  And then he went on, “The one thing I have learned is to trust the Tradition.  To trust the consensus of the ancient Christian writes as guided by the Holy Spirit.” I found myself deeply moved as he spoke. “Trust the Tradition.”  The great theological concept of Tradition is one of the four pillars of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (along with Scripture, Reason, and Experience).  Unfortunately we often reduce the term to tradition(s) – lower case and with an “s” added.  Such a stunted understanding of a great theological concept imperials our full understanding of our faith and doctrine (which drives the practice of faith, orthopraxy = right action) leaving us spiritually and theologically warped and diminished. Tradition, as properly understood as a theological concept and a pillar of the quadrilateral, is not a small “t” but a capital “T” existing alongside a capital “T” for Truth. Tradition is not mere history.  It is the great consensual reflection of the Christian faith that has been handed down from the earliest Christian writing (including but not limited to Scripture) and great Ecumenical Councils (think of the Nicene Creed or the Apostles Creed found in our hymnal).  Significantly, The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012 holds just such a high view of Tradition.  Listen for the witness of the Church.  “The story of the church reflects the most basic sense of tradition, the continuing activity of God’s Spirit transforming human life.  Tradition is the history of that continuing environment of grace in and by which all Christian live, God’s self-giving love in Jesus Christ.  As such, tradition transcends the story of particular traditions.” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2012, p. 83) In our conversation and in my reading, I was being invited to “recapture the resonance of a consensual orthodoxy, the harmony of voices celebrating the apostolic testimony to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, witnessed to in scripture and understood best by African interpreters of the faith.” As I listened I could not help but think of the old true quote, “He [or she] who marries the present age will be a widow in the next.” (Note: I think the quote comes from C. S. Lewis but am not sure.) Dr. Oden went on, “… Listen carefully to the voice of conscience. Conscience is a gift of the Spirit.”  He paused and then carefully explained in answer to my probing that conscience and Scripture go together.  “Conscience is not a feeling.  It is moral judgment.” He said. We drew our time to a close with him urging a regular discipline of prayer and devotion. Appropriately we closed in prayer.  As I headed to the car his words echoed through rugged trail of my thoughts.  “Trust the Tradition.”  I heard the Holy Spirit communicating to me through a person of faith.