On Authority, Tradition, and Millennial Evangelicals

Over the weekend I started reading Roger Scruton’s The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hopewhich is like everything Scruton writes: both instructive and engaging.  It was this bit, however, on the nature of authority that stood out to me as particularly interesting, especially in light of recent disputes over millennials and the church:

When it comes to our own lives, to the things that we know and in which we have acquired both understanding and competence, we take a measured view….The midwife who knows her job respects the solutions that have been proved by the generations who preceded her; she recognizes those with authority and instinctively obeys their advice.  And she does not hesitate to offer advice of her own.  She measures her own judgment against the accumulated wisdom of tradition, and if she takes a risk, because the problem before her is without a clear precedent, she is careful to measure the cost of failure and to ensure that it can be borne.”

Scruton goes on to suggest that the “scrupulous optimist,” as he calls them, are “acutely aware that we are only one among many in our field of expertise, are ready to defer to those with knowledge and experience, and are more respectful of the accumulated store of others’ knowledge than the scant addition we might make to it ourselves.  It is with an educated sense of the first-person plural that we deploy the knowledge that is our securest personal possession.”

If Scruton is right, there’s an inherent modesty required both to speak authoritatively and to discern and respond to authorities.  When Jesus speaks “as one with authority” in Matthew 7, he teaches within the context of an established and authoritative body of work, the Torah.  He illuminates various aspects in new and distinctive ways, and the whole teaching is reframed around the advent of the Messiah.  Yet his teaching is authoritative only because it comes from within a tradition, in the first place, rather than because it questions or subverts that tradition.  He’s able to wrangle with the Pharisees in the Temple at the age of twelve because he knows his stuff.  He’s done his due diligence, you might say.

Scruton keeps his example narrowed to the individual, but it’s worth expanding it and thinking generationally for a second.*  There is within the progressive temperament that is now en vogue among many “millennial Christians” the temptation to make skepticism the fundamental posture toward religious authorities.  Never mind that authorities in other disciplines, like science, are somehow immune.  The disposition does not look at our received tradition as an inheritance to be enjoyed and lived on so much as a burden that has to be subverted and deconstructed.  Progressive Christians are not interested in measuring our  judgment against the tradition; rather, the progressive temperament judges the tradition against a conception of “reason” or “experience” that is currently popular (“we now know….”).

The difference between the progressive temperament and what Scruton describes above is not simply one of emphasis, then, but one of substance.  The person who places himself under authority is necessarily more interested in the gifts they have received than the gifts they have to give–and inasmuch as they are able to speak authoritatively (and not simply popularly, which is an important difference) they will speak out of that sense of deference.  To put it bluntly, theological progressivism has to speak from a posture of pride.  The progressive question is the theological “humblebrag”:  it refuses to give the benefit of the doubt to stances that we have inherited while treating the world as a blank canvas which we then get to “create” on.  Assimilation by a surrounding culture isn’t a bug of theological progressivism so much as a feature.

The relationship between the institution that bears the tradition and the speaker is not symmetrical, then, and for the speaker, it cannot be.  That we stand on an equal plane with the institution we live within isn’t simply wrong–to the one who has been formed by the tradition, it seems…laughable.  That claim prompts a flabbergasted stammering as though someone had dared insult our wives or girlfriend.  “If you only knew,” the response can only be, just how much we have been given.  Such is the bashfulness of those in love:  in the face of a good so wonderful as a woman, as the churchthe appropriate response is penitential reverence and kneeling, rather than trumpeting our own virtues and gifts.  If Christ is to be seen there at all, if there is anything lovely, or pure, or holy, or any of the qualities that the eyes of faith detect–our entire outlook must shift and all our speaking and advocacy along with it.

But then, that will only be the response when the creeds are lived within, when they are prayed, and not simply repeated.  As Austin Farrer once put it, “No Christian deserves his dogma who does not pray them.”  Or this, also from him, after noting that Christ presents himself to be examined by the disciples in the upper room:

“On the other hand how can I question a truth like this truth?  For have I not begun to see Christ as the Lord, and does this not preclude questioning?…You might as well recommend to a husband the rational duty of suspending judgment about his wife’s fidelity until he has tested it by a sufficient number of ingenious traps and artificial maneuvers.”

“Come and see,” the exhortation is, but such sight is given only if we come reverently, soberly, and in the fear of God.  It is given when we have been chastened, when we have learned of the failures of the past and been instructed in the humility of wisdom–for “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

The appropriate response to the troubles of the church, to her failures and her flaws, is to recognize what Chesterton understood when responding to the question of what is wrong with the world.  As he famously replied by way of a letter:

Dear Sirs, 

I am. 

Sincerely yours, 

Matthew Lee Anderson

*Such generational analysis has been plenty in vogue for a while within evangelicalism, and I’ve engaged in it a bunch myself. However, I note that the approach has a very limited usefulness, if any at all.  I use it here because it’s shorthand for a phenomenon in a way that lots of people recognize, but could easily be talked out of ever using the phrase again.

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  • http://redemptiosehnsucht.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

    Mr. Anderson,

    I’m happy to see you reading Mr. Scruton. I can also heartily recommend his recent books, Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England (in which he discusses the benefits of the church being closely intertwined with local community and traditions) and How To Think Seriously About the Planet (in which he applies old-fashioned conservative traditions to the new circumstance of the increased need for protections of our environment). Outside, oh say, Marilynne Robinson, Victor Davis Hanson and Wendell Berry, I personally find Scruton to be one of the most intelligent and nuanced conservative voices alive today. Us younger conservatives would do well to listen carefully to him and his ilk.

    I am becoming more and more convinced that giving “tradition” a preliminary presumption in its favor is one of the first qualities of coherent conservative thought. (Burke, Coleridge, Chesterton, Kirk and Buckley would all be with us on this.) This means that intelligent critique of the modern American church may actually be based upon, not disgust with old traditions and institutionalization, but with its very departure from traditions and institutionalization by the relentlessly innovating progressive reforms in the 20th Century. Held Evans may not have realized the full range of implication contained in her caution that “Millennials” are being attracted to older more traditional and institutional forms of Christianity.

    When one finds a church whose music derives from ONLY from the last century at best and whose pastor reads ONLY from Christian publishing produced in the last couple decades, then said church has effectively severed itself from the past – and from the entire depth and richness of the history of Christendom. As a member of the younger generation, this is one the primary problems that I, for one, am interested in changing. Nice essay.

    cordially,

    – J.A.A. Purves

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks for the kind words, J.A.A. Is this the appropriate time to brag that I got to sit in on an aesthetics seminar with Scruton this past year, and hope to sit in on another in the next? : )

      Matt

      PS. I am sorry. But it is such an exciting opportunity and I feel like it takes another real admirer, like yourself, to properly appreciate just how amazing it is. : )

      • http://redemptiosehnsucht.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

        It’s worth bragging about, particularly if it makes more people take notice of him. If I were able to pick any kind of seminar with Scruton at all, “aesthetics” would be my very first choice.

  • gmoothart

    “Assimilation by a surrounding culture isn’t a bug of theological progressivism so much as a feature.” – bravo.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Thanks, Gabe. And great post on Chesterton, too. I may have more thoughts in light of it.

  • Luke W

    The appeal to “respect tradition” has been helpful in preserving the faith, but has also been an obstacle to reformation. We’ve protected heresy with this tactic, so we should tread carefully and never simply assume that tradition = truth. The church has a poor track record of defending error with declarations of authority. If not presented with humility, it can come across as a discussion stopper.

    • http://redemptiosehnsucht.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

      “Now it does not follow that an unquestioning acceptance of received
      opinions and long-established usage will of itself suffice to solve all
      personal and public problems. The world does change; a certain
      sloughing off of tradition and prescription is at work in any vigorous
      society, and a certain adding to the bulk of received opinion goes on
      from age to age. We cannot live precisely by the rules of our distant
      forefathers, in all matters. But, again to employ a phrase of Burke’s,
      the fact that a belief or an institution has long been accepted by men,
      and seems to have exerted a beneficent influence, establishes in its
      favor ‘a legitimate presumption.’ If we feel inclined to depart from
      old ways, we ought to do so only after very sober consideration of
      ultimate consequences. Authority, prescription, and tradition undergo
      in every generation a certain filtering process, by which the really
      archaic is discarded; yet we ought to be sure that we actually are
      filtering, and not merely letting our heritage run down the drain.”
      – Russell Kirk

      • Luke W

        Great quote! I like the line “If we feel inclined to depart from old ways, we ought to do so only after very sober consideration of the ultimate consequences.” I’d like to hear more about the “ultimate consequences” of addressing the issues raised by Millenials. Usually, I don’t hear any “sober consideration” by the establishment – only the complaint that Millenials have dared suggest change at any level. But I can’t claim to have studied the conversation deeply. Maybe someone can point me toward some “sober consideration” that is more than “they should respect tradition”?

        • http://redemptiosehnsucht.blogspot.com/ J.A.A. Purves

          Well, the current “establishment” hasn’t been too friendly to older Christian traditions themselves. For some quality “sober consideration” of depth, I can heartily recommend:

          – No Place for Truth or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993) – by David F. Wells

          – The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994) – by Mark A. Noll
          and:

          – Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times (2004) – edited by Millard J. Erickson

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          How long have you been reading Mere-O? : ) “Sober consideration” is precisely what we try to do around here *as* millennials who are formed by tradition.

          • Luke W

            I happened upon Mere-Orthodoxy about a year ago. The name, with its explicit nod to Lewis and Chesterton, led me to expect an intelligent discussion that expounded the thoughts of those great men into the current culture. While I have found intelligent discussion, I quickly discovered that, unlike C.S. and G.K., the contributors are firmly Evangelical. In my reading, the positions presented here are more informed by Evangelical tradition than Lewis and Chesterton, who would often fail to align with Mere-O positions, i.e. inerrancy of Scripture.

            If Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” was published today, wouldn’t the contributors here receive it like a Rob Bell book or “The Shack”?

            I still visit and watch for interesting articles (the recent discussion about state of Evangelical literature was excellent!), I’ve ultimately come to see Mere-Orthodoxy as a bit of bait and switch.

          • CT

            Do Evangelicals and what you call Orthodox (which is really mainline denominations) need to be divided? If we all profess Christ, than we are all one in Him. You act as if being an Evangelical is either a bad thing or that those who are could have no appreciation for Lewis or Chesterton. Assumptions and judgments like these is responsible for so much divisiveness in the Church.

            The Great Divorce is about as far from Bell as possible. In fact, it is an argument against what Bell advocates regarding Hell. Lewis in his intro explicitly states that it is not a statement of how Heaven and Hell actually are, it is merely an illustration. He also gently rebukes George MacDonald (a man who greatly loved Jesus, but held some unorthodox views) for his Universalism. The whole point of the book is that when given a choice between heaven and hell, some people would still choose Hell. It is a brilliant book by a brilliant man.

          • Luke W

            Not sure how you reached those assumptions – I’ll let my remarks stand in regards to my initial expectations for a website named for Lewis and Chesterton and what I subsequently found.

            As far as “The Great Divorce” (my favorite Lewis book), I wasn’t talking specifically about Lewis’s theology of Hell (though he did believe in Purgatory). I’m only saying that the imaginative license of the story would probably be picked apart by current Evangelical thinkers, and I believe would receive a similar reception as “The Shack.”

            And while I don’t see Lewis as a universalist, his beliefs on the exclusivity of Christ as the only means of salvation is debatable. He also didn’t hold a strong view of Biblical inerrancy. If he were alive today, would he be permitted to contribute to this website?

          • CT

            You may want to re-read your comments, both in the original comment and the subsequent reply to mine. You are making broad, sweeping judgements of Evangelicals and Evangelical thinkers. Lewis is revered among Evangelicals, not maligned. When you make statements like that, it makes me wonder what exactly your definition is of Evangelicals or Evangelical thinkers. His belief in Purgatory, if he held firmly to such a belief, would be outside Anglican orthodoxy. But it is in no way tied to salvation.

            I think you are incorrect when you state that his belief in Christ being the only way to salvation is debatable. MacDonald’s form of universalism was very nuanced. He believed that Jesus was the only way to salvation, he just did not believe in eternal damnation. He believed that even if people suffered for 1,000 years, all would be reconciled to Christ. Most likely it was a reaction against the harsh Scots Calvinism he was raised around. If Lewis critiqued this rather nuance view of Universalism, I find it impossible to believe he would condone a broader form.

            Comparing the author of “The Shack” to Lewis is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Evangelicals are quite welcome of imaginative works when the source is considered (see the wide acceptance of Tolkien’s and Lewis’ works). It is disingenuous to
            say otherwise.

            Given that this blog cites Lewis as a big influence, I would venture a guess that he would be more than welcome.

  • Many Horizons

    Thank you for this excellent and wise post. The “progressive temperament,” which you describe well, is a position I held before going to seminary and which was beaten out of me during my time there.

    However I am left with a struggle. One of the reasons my generation is skeptical of tradition is simply that they don’t feel that it speaks to them in their language. It gives answers to questions they don’t have, and doesn’t address their burning concerns and issues which arise from the cultural milieu in which they were raised. That is why progressives sound like they make more sense – because as you say they are assimilated to the surrounding culture – and why millenials will continue to find them more attractive and compelling.

    So how do we speak in a way that connects people to the Tradition while doing so from the epistemological/experiential starting point of a progressive millenial?
    – Barney
    http://www.manyhorizons.com

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Why should we start from the standpoint of the millennial? Maybe that needs to be called into question, and the questions that we do have are not the questions we should be asking.

      I work through this a good deal more in my book. You might find it interesting in light of your questions here.

      Matt

  • GK

    Sounds similar to Ratzinger and his comments about totalities.

    “As a spiritual being, the human creature is defined through interpersonal relations. The more authentically he or she lives these relations, the more his or her own personal identity matures. It is not by isolation that man establishes his worth, but by placing himself in relation with others and with God. Hence these relations take on fundamental importance. The same holds true for peoples as well. A metaphysical understanding of the relations between persons is therefore of great benefit for their development. In this regard, reason finds inspiration and direction in Christian revelation, according to which the human community does not absorb the individual, annihilating his autonomy, as happens in the various forms of totalitarianism, but rather values him all the more because the r
    elation between individual and community is a relation between one totality and another. Just as a family does not submerge the identities of its individual members, just as the Church rejoices in each “new creation” (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:17) incorporated by Baptism into her living Body, so too the unity of the human family does not submerge the identities of individuals, peoples and cultures, but makes them more transparent to each other and links them more closely in their legitimate diversity.”

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      That’s great. Where’s it from?

      • GK

        It’s a favorite excerpt from ‘Caritas in veritate’. Cheers.

  • CT

    Thank you for this thoughtful and well-written post. It provides a lot to ponder.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Happy to oblige!

  • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

    This is a very thoughtful and well done post. I guess I’ve got two questions on this though, although I suspect they’re very much connected.

    Is it a bit misleading to present tradition as homogenous? There are many different ideas presented in the traditions of the church. You’ll see differences in the desert fathers, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Lewis, Chesterton and many other theologians in the past. So which tradition wins? Doesn’t it somewhat become based on our own thoughts in the end for what tradition we accept? How do we deal with that?

    Related to that, how do we deal with faulty tradition? Simply appealing to authority and saying take it or leave it doesn’t seem the best. I mean that’s basically what happened to Luther. Honest questioning that came from Biblical study and personal thought blew up and split the church. Not that I’m saying all “progressive” critique comes from that place, but I do believe that there are critiques out there that do. It seems that a lot of the Millennial critique comes from abuse of authority. So how do we uphold tradition and authority, but also be open to critique and questioning?

    • gmoothart

      Jeremy,
      I think the main point is a deep reverence and respect for the tradition. No, tradition is not homogenous, but it is weighty. Every thoughtful Protestant has had to carefully weigh these matters.

      Especially where the Christian tradition speaks with a united voice, as for example in it’s reading of the Bible that homosexual acts are sinful, you must take that witness seriously and if you disagree, do so at least with a certain amount of fear and trembling. The mood I get from millennials is not a reverential disagreement with tradition but a disdain of it and an association of it with hate and oppression.

      • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

        That’s fair enough, but it all doesn’t sit well with me. It’s too easy to make deep reverence and deep respect mean what we want it to mean. The idea of someone questioning or trying to consider the implications of a tradition can be labeled as not holding reverence or respect for that position, when they may be respecting it but wanting to make it their own and know where it came from. Add into the fact that you may be in a certain generation and you can just get dismissed even faster because you’re one of those “millennials”.

        I agree that with certain issues like the one you bring up, the attitude is largely not respectful of the consistent line of tradition. It’s the idea that we know better now and that it’s hate and oppression, which isn’t cool and I don’t agree with. However, I’m hesitant to paint with too broadly of a brush, well since I am a millennial. We need respectful engagement of tradition, but the “gatekeepers” of tradition need to learn that all questions about or even pushing back against certain traditions are not rejection of said traditions.

        I guess what I’m ultimately calling for is mutual respect. Posts like this rightly give the weight to tradition that it needs to have, but I feel it emaciates the individual. Posts of those who are very critical of tradition, give too much weight to the individual and make tradition too insubstantial. Both of these paths seem dangerous. We have to respect tradition, but we also have to respect those who come with real questions, like Luther who I mentioned earlier. I think we like to think we’re a lot more open to those kind of respectful questions than many churches or denominations really are.

        • gmoothart

          Jeremy,
          To me what stands out most in your post is “gatekeepers”. I think that most of what millennials are reacting against is not the tradition itself, but the heavy-handed, unloving, and stern way it has been handed down to them. Propositions are important (Christianity is fundamentally creedal), but it is possible to over-emphasize them and I think that previous generations have definitely done that. Millennials bring an emphasis on story and relationship which is a valuable corrective, and which I find very compelling.

          So when I talk about reverence for tradition and respectful disagreement, I don’t mean it as just a tool to get people in line. I mean it as something I’ve wrestled deeply with myself, in issues like eternal security, whether or not Adam and Eve were historical figures and the ramifications for theology if they weren’t; how historical the book of Daniel is. In all of those (well, 2 of 3) I part with the greater part of the Christian tradition, but tentatively and acknowledging that doing so raises problems of its own.

          • http://mylifeonthebalancebeam.wordpress.com/ Jeremy Manuel

            Yeah, I think you’re exactly right that the focus is on the “gatekeeper.” I agree with you that the way the tradition has been handled is a big turn-off for a number of people. That’s more of where I’m going with the respectful disagreement. I wasn’t meaning that you were saying it as some tool to get people in line. The problem is that people who don’t use their authority well, just to uphold tradition, can use it as that tool. Just like millennials can use story and experience as a tool to promote their experiences with God and the church or can use it to paint certain groups as evil, hateful, or intolerant.

            I guess that’s what seems so ironic in a lot of the discussion about tradition. Christianity is very creedal, but you take a creed like the Nicene Creed and very little of what is so hotly debated (at least in the Christian circles) is even present there. So many of the battles are over other issues that we may not have near the certainty on, like the ones you brought up, gender roles (or lack thereof), end times paradigms, and the like.

            I think meaningful wrestling is very much needed. We need the wrestling and also need the humility to know that our views, whether they keep with our tradition or break with them probably still have issues we need to deal with. You display that humility and it seems we’re coming from a similar place on this issue. At least I think so.

  • http://bookwi.se/ Adam Shields

    I really do appreciate your conservative tendencies (and I mean that as a compliment if it does not come through that way.)

    But I was reading Mark Noll’s The Rise of Evangelicalism yesterday and was struck by the world wide First Great Awakening. Almost everyone that was involved in that were in their 20s. John Wesley was a bit older, but not much. Jonathan Edwards turned 30 right about the time of his first involvement. George Whitefield turned 25 during his first one year preaching tour of the US.

    The missionary movement was started by people almost entirely in their 20s.

    It is not that I disagree that tradition is not important or that those that are currently young should not learn from those that are older. But historically God has often used younger people to spark new works within the church. The healthier versions of those new works had an ability to work with a variety of people and learn from (at least some) elders. But what is even more universal is that all of these revival movements were condemned as being against tradition and as young people that were being disrespectful to their elders.

  • JD

    Hi, I’ve just come across your blog and I have to say what a breath of fresh air it is to witness another young Christian guy who has deep respect for tradition. I thought I was rapidly becoming the only one! And it’s hard because, if I’m honest, I find many progressives rather smug and self-righteous and make me feel like some moral monster for not rejecting with disdain certain parts of the Christian tradition. But really what else do we have?