Sunday, February 19, 2006

Religion and Local Tradition

... it was only in the nineteenth century that the idea of tradition was rediscovered in the Roman Catholic Church, mainly through the work of the Tubingen theologian Johann Adam Moehler. though later in the century biblical studies began to focus on the historical formation of the Christian scriptures and the local contexts and church communities within which they were composed. As a result, the concept of tradition was dramatically enlarged; it was no longer merely the repository of unwritten or oral teachings thought to derive from the Apostles, but a kind of condition or presupposition of scripture itself. For Moehler, tradition is bound up with the operation of the Holy Spirit in the church and it is seen as a dynamic principle which brings about new developments in doctrine and the understanding of scripture and also in the life of the Christian community.

From the point of view of historically based scripture studies, the Christian scriptures were composed within local and regional church communities with their own traditions (and their own theological styles) and the scriptural canon was established by reference to those same communities. In tact, Jesus’ own teaching and ‘way,’ as a variety of reformed Judaism, was itself formed and elaborated within the context of Judaic tradition as it was in his own time. It wold have made no sense outside that tradition. As the Anglican theologian, Stephen Sykes, has said: Jesus did not found Christianity: it ‘was founded by Jesus earliest followers on the foundation of his transformation of Judaism.’

Again, the meaning of scripture was interpreted in reference to the lived experience of the church communities and its general shape and form was continually refined and determined within the same context. If we define ‘tradition’ in this broad sense as encompassing the lived experience of the church communities and as providing the setting for the composition of the scriptural texts and establishing the scriptural canon, then we can say that tradition makes scripture possible. In other words, scripture does not, and cannot, establish its own credentials or its own privileged canonical status, and it does not bear its meaning upon its face.

... The development of doctrine within the church is then largely the work of tradition, taken in its widest sense as the lived experience of the whole church community both in the past and the present. And, if we understand tradition as the operation of various forms of ‘local knowledge’ in particular and regional communities within the church, and not as some kind of Cartesian foundation, we can then appreciate the importance of local knowledge in Christianity.
From Religious Inventions by Max Charlesworth

For Charlesworth, effective religion balances localism and universalism, avoiding sectarianism without surrendering to literalism or legalism. His attention to Catholicism is meant only to be an example, yet still he reveals a Church that allows for diversity of practices in spite of its image of centralization, strict doctrine, and rigid "Papalism."


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