Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 25, 2009

A Lutheran Perspective on Tradition

The previous sermon posted on this blog, based on selected verses from Mark 7, dealt in part with the matter of tradition in the church.  The current edition of the Worship the Lord newsletter, published by the Commission on Worship of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, also deals with the matter of tradition from a Lutheran and pastoral perspective.  As an expansion of the discussion of tradition that was first raised in the Mark 7 sermon, I’d like to share excerpts of the Worship the Lord article, written by James Tiefel, professor of worship and homiletics at Wisconsin Lutheran SeminaryClick here to see the entire article.

When it comes to public worship, tradition carries some heavy baggage. Tradition is what the Jews embraced when they criticized and rejected Jesus. Tradition was partially the basis for the philosophy Paul identified as “hollow and deceptive” in his letter to the Colossians. Along with papal degrees, tradition is the source of Rome’s confusion over the free gospel. Tradition in congregations often inhibits necessary change and even spiritual growth. For some of us, the concept of tradition in worship leaves a bad taste on the tongue.

For others tradition in worship doesn’t have a bad reputation at all. In fact, traditional worship practices are exactly what some people are looking for these days – and I’m thinking of more than the traditional Lord’s Prayer. Some younger Christians and many new Christians seem comfortable with ancient practices a previous generation would not have tolerated. The sixteenth century worship customs of the Lutheran confessors are eliciting the kind of enthusiasm they didn’t enjoy a half century ago.

The Spirit’s most common references to tradition have more to do with traditionalism. Similar to ceremonialism or formalism, it’s going through the form of worship without a heart that trusts in worship’s focus. Seeing the same trait in God’s people that Isaiah saw, Jesus quoted the prophet: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). Old and New Testament writers often criticized this tragic flaw in the people of Israel. It’s the fault that lay behind Jesus’ words about whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23).

The Spirit never inspired specific instructions about the value or use of traditional worship practices. But the people the Spirit called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified demonstrate an obvious interest in customs that edified their ancestors. The exiles in Babylon knew better than to re-establish the temple’s sacrificial rites in a foreign land, but they reviewed the temple rituals and remembered the promises they foreshadowed. They sang the psalms appointed for temple worship even after they returned to their homeland and gathered in their synagogues. They celebrated Passover in their homes.

Although Jesus’ first followers sometimes struggled to understand their freedom from the Old Testament ceremonies, they worked through difficult issues (with guidance from the apostles, especially Paul) and came to rejoice in the fulfillment of the promises rather than in the promises’ liturgical symbols and shadows. But even with freedom a sensitive issue and even as they abandoned customs that had been at the heart of the old covenant (e.g., circumcision), they continued to follow the traditional pattern of worship they inherited from the synagogue – a pattern that forms our service of the Word to this day.

Although the Spirit does not speak specifically to the concept of tradition in worship, the Spirit’s people had no apparent interest in moving away from all the customs their ancestors had found edifying for faith. As they came to understand the concept of freedom, they also learned to know the difference between the peril of traditionalism and the value of tradition. They came to disdain the former. It is not an interpretive leap, however, to suggest that the early Church came to see the worship customs of their ancestors in light of these words: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).

Luther’s perspective on the tradition concept wasn’t unlike that of the first believers, and he articulated it clearly and concisely. He had experienced firsthand the horrors of traditionalism, perhaps, in early life, even to the loss of his faith. Once he came to understand the gospel, however, he was able to put tradition into perspective. He came to see ancient worship practices not as burdens to afflict faith, but as blessings to aid faith. Luther wasn’t oblivious to what the Roman Church had done to the historic rites; he wrote about the “prattling and the rattling” and the “wretched accretions” that had become part of the liturgy over the centuries. He called the canon of the mass (the central text of the communion rite) “that abominable concoction drawn from everyone’s sewer and cesspool.” At the same time he wasn’t willing to abandon an order of service that had “genuine Christian beginnings.” His objective was not “to do away with the service, but to restore it again to its rightful use.”

Luther’s thinking about retaining the historic Christian rites was influenced by his concerns for laypeople who would have problems adjusting to new orders of service. But his perspective was far broader. He valued the unifying nature of the ancient orders because they protected believers from “the fickle and fastidious spirits who rush in like unclean swine without faith or reason, and who delight only in novelty and tire of it as quickly.” Luther also knew liturgical history and practice, and he respected the voices of the ancient church.

Luther’s concept of tradition in worship? Everything about his perspective flows from his confidence in the gospel. He certainly doesn’t accept traditions as though he were a slave to them, but he doesn’t carelessly discount them, either. He is respectful of the Church’s ancient voice, but willing to fine-tune; grateful for old customs, but appreciative of new forms.

It’s difficult to separate the concept of tradition from the personal attitudes of the pastors and laypeople who approach it. Some find safety in traditional worship forms; others feel shackled by them. But discerning parish leaders need to approach this issue with a certain detached objectivity and put personal feelings aside.

Those who have seen the abuse of tradition need to stop encouraging us to abandon traditional worship forms. They need to help us get our hands around a better perspective, one we’ve reviewed here in the practices of the early church and the writings of Luther (and found also among the Lutheran confessors). The ancients have something to tell us about customs that have value for faith. They sifted through and assessed the legacy they received from their fathers, just as we must do. They discarded and adjusted, and so must we. But they began the process with respect and love for the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church. They did not consider themselves uniquely qualified to abandon customs believers had found edifying for a thousand years. They did not assume that old was invariably ineffective and new was bound to be better, just as they did not imagine that old was perfect and new unacceptable. They built on the experience of the past and moved confidently into the future.

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