Leslie Houlden

Looked at from the side of theological thought, the Christian tradition is a sustained process of reflection on the significance and implications of Jesus of Nazareth in the light of the being of God. The process has two other fundamental features. First, it did not start from scratch, but (as Part 1 demonstrates) arose as a development within and out of the already long tradition of the religion of Israel, crystallized above all in the Hebrew Bible. Second, in this process belief about God himself came to be profoundly modified as a result of the phenomenon of Jesus and of thought concerning him: in various ways, God came to be seen as 'Jesus-like'.

It is possible to see this process as a continuous, living whole, involving change certainly, but by way of intellectual growth and development that have been so organic, so free from jolts and re-starts as almost to compel the belief in their being providential. (That is, of course, on the question-begging and rarely questioned assumption that God himself favours the straight and unbroken line and that his followers can and should therefore strive to do the same!)

The process can, however, seem to be more like a chain made up of connected but discrete links: a series of episodes, each drawing on what precedes and contributing to what succeeds, but best understood in its own unique context of culture, sensibility and indeed political and social life. Churches and those who speak for them have almost always had a tendency to maximize continuity, even to see it as unchangingness; while more independent observers bring out rather the movement and the discontinuity.

It depends partly on what counts as 'the tradition'. If the focus is on 'the winners' in a particular episode or period, in effect those who turned out to be the bearers of continuity, then others ('the losers') are likely to fade to the margins and to be discounted. And, given the will they almost certainly possess, the winners are likely to insist on defining their ideas in such a way as to demonstrate continuity. Old ideas are not abjured but, it is alleged, reframed in more serviceable terms.

If, however, one insists on a rounded and comprehensive view of particular times and places, resisting hindsight and aiming to look at them in their own right, then a much more complex picture of the tradition will emerge, a much more adventitious sense of the story as a whole. Each part, however defined, will then seem to be most fairly and helpfully assessed on its own terms, and 'tradition' will be a concept both broader and looser.

Tradition functions not only as an unfolding story, like the history of a nation or a college, but as a locus of authority. In this capacity, it exercises what many institutions feel as the weight of tradition. In so far as the tradition (or elements within it) has come to be seen as the vehicle of theological truth, arrived at by divine gift perhaps, though bestowed by way of human instruments, then its deliverances will seem to be binding on successors. It is an accumulating body of beliefs and insights, passed on from generation to generation, able to be added to by way of elucidation and coherent provision for new needs or predicaments, but never reduced by the discarding of what critics or protesters come to see as obsolete or plain false. At best, such elements may be reinterpreted. Then the outsider may discern some kind of evasion, and perhaps attribute it to the familiar inertia and power-consciousness of all institutions, here decked out with divine sanction. Only in rare moments is the authoritative tradition in a position to accept that charge or even to comprehend it. The Second Vatican Council has been controversial for seeming to be one such moment, impelled by Pope John XXIII.

A tradition is by definition something handed down. The very notion conveys the sense of continuity of culture. A break in culture would seem to threaten the possibility of genuine continuity and thus authentic tradition. The very word, that is, is biased towards the organic rather than the chain model. And plainly, a strong case can be made, even in these days of detached observation and historical candour, for the organic model. Whatever the shifts of interest, perspective and conviction, the Christian theological tradition has never lost the sense of the God-given character of the created order, the centrality of Jesus' person and teaching, and the sense of an ultimate hope in relation to God—to mention three basic tenets.

Yet it is equally undeniable that we must recognize the discontinuities which 'tradition' masks. In its very first decades, the Christian movement left (and largely lost) its original Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking milieu for the Greek-speaking world of the Roman Empire. And (to leap to recent centuries) it has come to find itself addressing and inhabiting virtually every people, every culture, every language under the sun—with a growing consciousness of the challenge to discern the proper limits of adaptability. The very missionary success of the great Churches in particular brought them agonizing problems which have become all the more acute as cultural self-awareness and sophistication have spread across the globe. Even those Churches most authoritarian in structure and most firmly wedded to ideas of theological identity can scarcely shut their eyes to the situation. It is apparent that everybody has the right to exist!

In some ways, the most significant intellectual change in this regard began to arise in the sixteenth century, when many, at first within Christianity itself, came to test the tradition against various yardsticks: initially against a biblically derived picture of Christian origins and the early Church, as in classical Protestantism, and then against more abstract criteria of rationality, historical evidence (now with its independent measures of truth), or even common sense. All these forces have tended to compel a sense of Christianity as a mobile tradition, involving numerous shifts in beliefs and attitudes, despite the undoubted continuities of faith, institution and concern.

Tradition has its points of crystallization. Creeds, liturgies, the decrees of councils and synods, great leaders and teachers or great books, all will epitomize the tradition in a particular context and add to its illuminative power, often for centuries to come, even, it seems, world without end. Innovations, like new liturgies, are best 'sold' as re-presentations of very old ones, though of course the cultural setting of their use is as new as could be.

Tradition dances in a peculiarly complex pattern with Scripture—in one sense an early product of Christian tradition, and in another a partner whose voice must always be listened to, but (and this is crucial) the interpretation of which is a task for the tradition, embodied in the living Church. This is true as much for those who acknowledge this interpretative role for tradition in relation to Scripture as for those who claim to be taking Scripture in its plain sense as their sole guide.

In order to form a view of whether tradition is better pictured as moving in a continuous line or as jerking and even lurching its way along its path through time and place, it is necessary to be conscious of one's vantage point; whether as a historian observing the course of events and endeavouring to discern intelligible patterns, or as a theologian seeking to identify the various articulations of Christian belief. The days of the blinkered propagandist will no doubt never come to an end: so there are accounts of the Christian tradition that seem wilfully to exclude large parts of the available evidence, in order to further some sectional cause. They may seek to commend a particular strand in the tradition or to demonstrate the falsity of the tradition in part or whole. In the past, such procedures have indeed been the norm. Nowadays, though widely differing accounts can still be offered, even by those innocent of crudely sectarian interests, especially of major episodes like the Reform of the sixteenth century, the characteristic stance of the modern academic describing the tradition combines detachment with sympathy; enough detachment to deal justly with the evidence, and enough sympathy to enter into the aims and achievements of those whose lives and work are being described. This tone certainly marks the chapters in this Part.

The chapters are not all of the same kind. Thus, the first seeks to imprint on the reader's mind both the fundamental and pervasive role of Jesus in

Christian tradition and something of the complexity that is inescapably associated with that role. It is partly a question of disentangling the historical facts about Jesus from the plethora of ideas that have been associated with him, and partly a matter of recognizing the changing tones of those ideas as they have come on the scene down the centuries.

The five following chapters trace the tradition chronologically, dealing with the major phases in its development (see also the parallel chapters in Part 4 on Spirituality). In the first phase, the early centuries, it is a matter of seeing how, with a minimum of organization, the Church succeeded in forging both the idea of orthodox faith and a more or less agreed content for that orthodoxy—at the expense of relegating dissident beliefs to the penumbra of heresy. Nowhere more than in this period is the modern theologian, lacking the machinery and probably the inclination to distinguish so sharply between legitimate and illegitimate features of the tradition, compelled to consider how far to applaud the undoubted clarification produced in this period, even though the idiom of thought was so different from the earliest Christian thought forms found in the New Testament.

At the end of his chapter, Robert Wilken throws out a bridge towards the medieval period, which was in so many ways the closely related heir of the patristic period. Yet in how different a world! David d'Avray tells the tale of the movement of the tradition through a period and a society where Christianity was no longer precarious, no longer one option among others, a process begun in the fourth century but long in gestation, and occurring differently in Eastern and Western Christianity. Indeed, the burden of this chapter is that it took most of the so-called age of faith to produce the maximally integrated Christian society of the West—and no sooner was it in existence, with papal authority at its most extensive, than it began to disintegrate, as the Reformation loomed—in this perspective, itself the product of late medieval Christianity in the West.

The fragmentation of the Christian tradition in the sixteenth century, chiefly in Northern Europe (then with its eventual diffusion across the colonial territories of America, Africa and the Far East), is the subject of Alister McGrath's chapter, which itself points forward to the more modern intellectual movements which have their roots in this period. John Kent outlines the profound problems created for traditional ways of discussing Christian belief by the movements of thought that go under the name of the Enlightenment. These centre on the greatly increased sense that it was possible, even mandatory, to think about the sources and content of Christianity as if from outside, from a position of 'honest' impartiality. It was therefore both a philosophical and a historical movement, and it was decisive for all subsequent developments. It was accompanied in due course by profound political changes which resulted in the secularization—in ethos even when not in official stance—of many Western societies, thus creating a quite novel context in which the Christian tradition must live.

This it has done with varying degrees of realism and success, as Keith Clements's chapter indicates. It also shows some of the ways in which the Christian tradition has 'bounced back' in answer to the challenges of modernity, producing fresh responses to fresh situations, notably in the liberation theology that addresses the grievous ills of parts of the Third World.

Gavin D'Costa's chapter examines the ways in which the Christian tradition may relate to another aspect of the modern world which impinges with undeniable force: the realization that, whether it takes an exclusive view of its truth-claims or seeks greater accommodation, Christianity must recognize itself as only one of the mature great faiths of the world. The European perspective of 'Christendom', fortified in the long colonial era, is no longer adequate. But how can the Christian tradition adapt itself to the new light, and how far ought it to do so?

All through history, the Christian tradition has been embodied in and expressed through the phenomena of human culture, across a great spectrum of forms and activities. No wonder it has been, inevitably, such a diverse, even chameleon-like tradition. The final chapter draws attention eloquently to this multi-coloured factor in the whole story, something that has run like a subterranean river below all the chapters.

Organism or chain? The different styles inevitably displayed by the various writers of the chapters that follow tend both to exemplify and to enhance the latter view. But they also show the many points of continuity and the underlying singleness of commitment and devotion that the first chapter of this Part sought to bring out.

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