There’s a book that lies on a shelf at home that I pick up every now and again called The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. He’s a Biblical scholar. Not among the best of the Biblical scholars but has a Ph.D. from the University of Nottingham. I find the book rather odd every time I pick it up. For starters, it’s not really scholarly. There are a few footnotes to be exact but it seems more like a personal reflection than anything else. Second, it’s not particularly well-argued.
In the second chapter, on pages 29-35, McKnight distinguishes between reading the Bible with tradition and reading the Bible through tradition. According to Mcknight, reading the Bible through tradition is bad because ultimately traditions become irrelevant for us (someone correct me if I am misreading him). McKnight seems to lean toward liberalism in this part of the book. He writes “Reading the Bible with the Tradition gives us guidance but it also gives us freedom to differ with Tradition” (34). Earlier, he viciously attacks the Eastern Orthodox liturgies as being outmoded (28). The theme of his book is that God speaks to people according to the age we are living in (I agree with him though not according to the way he has interpreted it) (27-28).
McKnight seems to misunderstand the church fathers. He claims that whenever a situation came up, they went back to the Bible without fossilizing anything as he claims (32). According to McKnight, the Biblical authors didn’t do that either. One wonders what McKnight even knows of the Bible or the church fathers at this point. The church fathers were very keen to the idea of fossilizing traditions and often times, arguments from tradition are appealed to by Biblical authors.
2 Thessalonians 3:6 – Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
1 Corinthians 11:2 – I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.
There is a line of thought existing in scripture that there are human traditions and there are divine traditions. But this brings us to another problem Mcknight faces–there was no canon in the first-third century churches! How did they formulate a canon? How can we let the Bible be if we have no canon? And here is where the church fathers begin to fossilize traditions. St. Irenaeus writes of the Gospels that they are to be four in number (Against Heresies, 3.11.8). That is a fossilized tradition! Liberals generally tend to altar already existing Christian doctrines by throwing books out of the canon–if McKnight wants us to reject reading the Bible through tradition, then he must eradicate our canon as well! The canon was given to us by the Church. Tertullian threw Praxaeus out of the Church for being a Patripassianist, Sabellius was thrown out for the same reason and the Church would ultimately fossilize the deity of Christ and the Trinity doctrine at the Councils of Nicaea Constantinople. So the church fathers really did fossilize the tradition. To say otherwise is to demonstrate ignorance on what the church fathers perceived about their doctrine. Tertullian was thrown out of the Church by St. Jerome.
Of course, I am a member of a church that has fossilized tradition but then so are most who already agree with the notion that there should only be four Gospels in the Bible! You have no Bible unless you submit to Church doctrine. The Creeds and the Councils are what sets the boundary for what will make us Christians.
Going back to McKnight’s model of God speaking to us in different ways throughout history, I agree with this assessment. But this is because the Biblical characters and saints throughout the ages were dealing with largely different issues, not because they were attempting to appease the culture at the time. The Israelites of course did not accept the culture’s ways at the time of sacrificing young children to Molech. Paul found himself at enmity with the world for allowing homosexual practices (Rom. 1:24-28). Many theologians of the church spoke out against Popes for their corruption, St. Ignatius of Loyola combated the Protestants, St. Dominic combated the Albigensians. We’re all dealing with different cultural problems so of course God is speaking to us in different ways but to suggest the answer to God’s speaking to us is to kow-tow to the demands of the culture or create a different religion that resembles nothing close to Christianity whatsoever is a gross misappropriation of tradition.
Of course I believe in reading the Bible through tradition with the authority of the Church. Anything less is to define Christianity the way I want to define it. At some point, we as Christians have to ask ourselves “how much do we really know?” And when we ask ourselves this question, the question following is “Do I submit or do I go my own way?” The latter would be a path of loneliness.