A Living Tradition

The Rev. Dr. Robert C. Spencer, formerly the resident Director of Crieff Hills Community, is now establishing a new agency as its Director and Teaching Elder: Laos Ministries, which seeks through workshops, retreats, preaching, consultations, etc., "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ."

Tradition, some have stated, is how we keep our balance. Sheldon Harnick, along with Jerry Bock wrote, "By tradition, everyone knows who he [/she] is, and what God expects of him [/her] to do." Roles, lives and destinies are apparently defined by this tradition. Harnick continued by proclaiming, that "without our tradition, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof." The theme of this signature song continues through the whole musical entitled Fiddler on the Roof. There is something for the Church to learn in this expression. Tradition can be seen as the root note in a beautiful melody or a discordant chord. Sometimes the controversy around tradition and traditions can contribute to shakiness rather than balance. In the New Testament, tradition means "what is transmitted," and it had a mixed review. Jesus was critical of the "tradition of the [Jewish] elders" which broke the "commandment of God" (Matt. 15:2-3). Paul acknowledged them, but sometimes critically. He also drew attention to the Christian tradition that was starting to be taught. It is to be adhered to, since it was received from Christ and delivered on by Paul (and other true apostles) (1 Cor. 15:1ff.). This gospel teaching of tradition has been passed on throughout the centuries since then.

There was, however, another perspective of tradition that was encouraged by both Jews and Paul. It has not been a part of the debates on tradition. To understand it better, it would be helpful to look at one aspect of Jewish thought and teaching that was contemporary with Paul and likely with Jesus. It was during that time period when Jewish discussions were taking place, especially among the Pharisees, about the oral law presumably given by Moses along with the written Torah. This oral tradition of the elders was worked on by post-temple scribes, until it was eventually codified in the Mishnah around AD 200. This oral law encompassed the Jewish religion and legal teachings that were taught throughout the period of the rise of Christianity.

One of the early works that came out of this period was the Abot ("the Fathers"). As well as being a collection of sayings that presented to faithful Jews the rules for the good life, it was the "Mishnah's first apologia." It sought to establish a continuous link back to Moses, as a subtle proof that the Mishnah's teachings derive from a process of oral tradition, beginning at Sinai. "A chain of tradition is established leading from Sinai into the very rules and principles of the Mishnah. The links of the chain are not sayings but sages, the chain is one formed of a process of tradition, from master to disciple. Then the condition of discipleship defines the continuity of the tradition, and it is a tradition made up of flesh and blood living men."

This "chain of tradition" is expressed in the opening verse of the Tractate Abot ("The Sayings of the Fathers"):

    1:1 Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to elders, and elders to prophets, and prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly. They said three things: Be prudent in judgment. Raise up many disciples. Make a fence for the Torah.

These verbs "receive" and "hand on," in Hebrew, both yield derivative words that mean tradition. The Torah is a matter of tradition, and this tradition was still in active development at the time of Paul and the early Christian church, "so the tradition is not something written down, it is something that lives." A contemporary Jewish scholar, Jacob Neusner, goes on to state:

    The essence of the tradition is not what is said, e.g., citing a verse of Scripture and expanding on it, but who does the saying: a master to a disciple, forward through all time, backward to Sinai ….God's revelation extends through time. But that does not mean people later on make things up as they go along. To the contrary, they attain their qualifications through a labor of discipleship, taking a place in a chain of tradition, of receiving and handing on.

Leon Morris of Cambridge, commented on this way in which Jewish Rabbis carried out their instruction of scholars, and it was by committing the teachings to memory. Although there is some difference of opinion on this matter, it is likely that it describes what generally took place. "The regular process of instruction, consisted in the teacher selecting certain items to be committed to memory and the student memorising them. There was a regular system of instruction among the Rabbis and an accepted body of oral teaching. This oral teaching was not the kind of thing that was expected to be altered in transmission." So it was that the tradition was maintained and kept relatively pure.

In the Abot a list of authorities is given, commencing with God's revelation to Moses at Sinai and ending with authorities who take prominent roles in compiling the Mishnah itself. This tradition goes from master to disciple, Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, from the Elders to the Prophets, from them to the "Men of the Great Assembly," from them to Simeon the Righteous, from him to Antigonus of Sokho, from him to the five sets of pairs of the Mishnah sages themselves (the last pair being Hillel and Shammai) and ultimately to Gamaliel, then to Simeon his son. Several generations of individuals form the chain of tradition. These latter sages were contemporary with the founding of the Christian Church. Gamaliel II was ruler of the Jewish community after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. We remember that Paul was "educated according to the strict manner of the fathers," "at the feet of Gamaliel" (Acts 22: 3). This latter Gamaliel was either the one mentioned above or in the same lineage. So Paul was educated in, and participated in the same chain of tradition of the "handing on" of the Torah. He could be said to be the one who sets the Torah tradition on a new course, a direction informed by, and centred in, Jesus Christ. Much of Paul's work in preaching, teaching, and developing disciples can be seen to be within this tradition of the sages. The Abot states:

    Lots of the Torah, lots of life; lots of discipleship, lots of wisdom; lots of counsel, lots of understanding; lots of righteousness, lots of peace. [If] one has gotten a good name, he has gotten it for himself. [If] he has gotten teachings of the Torah, he has gotten himself life eternal.

The "Great Commission" of the resurrected Christ provided a similar mandate for the early Church and the apostles (including Paul), to build a living chain of tradition or disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…" (Matthew 28:18-19). Jesus also said, "As my father sent me so I send you" (John 20:21). The tradition goes on: Jesus to the twelve and Paul, Paul to his fellow workers, "pastors and teachers", and from them to all the saints. Jesus and the tractate Abot agree — "raise up many disciples."

In Paul and early Christianity it was definitely not the Torah that was passed on to give "life eternal"; it was Jesus Christ himself: "that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:15). "Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3). "And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfilment to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ" (Eph. 1:9-10 NIV). "For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: 'The righteous will live by faith"' (Rom. 1:17). So it can be seen in Ephesians (4: 11ff.) that the work of the "apostles … prophets … evangelists and … pastors and teachers …" in equipping or perfecting the saints unto the work of ministry (and) unto the building up of the body of Christ, should be seen in this same, although renewed, line of Torah tradition. This "mature manhood" could be conceived as related to, or encompassing of being "prudent in judgment" as in the Abot. Thus the purpose of the teaching in this new Christian lineage was to develop a protective "fence-like" body of knowledge and faith around the saints, so that they would "no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ" (Eph. 4:14-15).

Pauline Christianity is founded in the fact of Christ, but in wrestling to interpret the full meaning and implications of that fact Paul constantly drew upon concepts derived from Rabbinic Judaism. It was these ideas that are woven through all of his thought. Several biblical scholars have concluded this, and not alone from this instance. It is evident that some of the goals for post-temple Judaism were to be found in Paul, except that the focus was now Christ. What Paul sought to do was to "raise up" and equip more disciples (his co-workers), who in turn were to do the same thing over and over. This was to be the Christian "chain of tradition": "For we are fellow workmen for God … like a skilled master builder I laid the foundation and another man is building on it" (1 Cor. 3:9 ff.). A search of the New Testament reveals about a hundred names of these individuals in Acts and the letters. They were participants in his ministry, cooperated in his evangel mission, and they define the apostle's work as a collaborative ministry. There were many descriptive names for the ministries and activities in which they engaged, or even the offices they may have held: co-worker, minister, apostle, partner, fellow soldier, prisoner or slave, toiler and brother, (etc.). They were his associates in preaching and teaching in local situations or travelling with him, and colleagues in his writing. They included both men and women. The writer of Ephesians was seeking to express the same truth in a shorter summary list of ministers engaged in "equipping the saints unto the work of the ministry …." Paul and the tractate Abot agree — "raise up many disciples." The "chain of tradition" continued onwards.

The doing of the ministry and the equipping of others to continue this doing, and the further equipping of more disciples, has to go on simultaneously and continuously in each generation. Unfortunately, there have been times and places where it has broken down. This chain of witnessing and equipping is part of what I am advocating in lay leadership development and the ministry of the laity / church members in their daily life and work. With more Christians engaged in this ministry of daily care, presence, advocacy and love, etc., the "chain of tradition" will continue, and we will "raise up many disciples." Christ calls each and every Christian to be an active part of this Living Tradition. In such a tradition the church will be able to keep its balance as it moves forward in Christ's service.