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Handing on a tradition

  • 21 October 2021
  One of the challenges facing churches today has to do with tradition. Tradition is a sometimes charged word, but it refers to an everyday social need. It has to do with how a community passes on its way of life and its understanding of authoritative writings that shape it. The word itself can refer both to what is passed on and to the process of passing it on. The challenge of passing on a tradition is perennial. Both ways of living and writings reflect the culture of their own time and so need to be translated into the changing languages of later cultures.

The challenge is perhaps especially acute in our own culture which emphasises the need for individuals to shape their identity by their own choices. In this world the call to pass on a way of life and identity can be seen as old-fashioned and constraining of freedom. The writings foundational to the tradition will then also be dismissed as irrelevant and authoritarian.

Such a cultural climate makes it difficult for churches to represent the Scriptures as authoritative. It also challenges Western societies in their need to hand on a democratic way of life and governance in a culture that lacks familiarity and interest in its founding documents and history. To meet this challenge both in churches and in state the contribution of people who have a deep familiarity with the tradition is particularly important.

Two recent books written by Biblical scholars for church audiences engage with Christian tradition in ways that explore its richness and engage with contemporary culture. They are very different in their style and in their intended audience. In Come to the light: Reflections on the Gospel of John, Jesuit Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne draws on lectures given at Retreats for committed Catholics to explain the movement and inner movement of John’s Gospel. Addressing such an interested and receptive audience at home with the tradition and with its documents, he writes in a language and style that are explanatory, authoritative and inviting.

In The Church Triumphant as salt: Becoming the community Jesus speaks about, Sally Douglas, a Uniting Church Scripture scholar and congregational minister, addresses people who are interested in faith and church but are wary of the language of the tradition and about its claim to be normative. She needs simultaneously to allay the fears of people who are ready to dismiss any appeal to tradition as