Tradition: Between Synthesis and Historicity

“Tradition” is one of the more frequently used words in Anglican debates. It gets utilized constantly on blogs like this one. Due to its use and importance we have to look at it just a bit more carefully: “Tradition” is a cipher. That is, it is not a word with a stable meaning. When writers (including me) invoke “the Christian Tradition” or even “the Anglican Tradition,” they invoke an intellectual construct consisting of what they consider to be the chief teachings, practices, and devotions through the ages. We may both say “Tradition” but what I mean by it and what you mean are inevitably different. Too often this reality remains not only unstated but uncomprehended.

That’s not to say, however, that there’s no such thing as “Tradition” or even that there’s no such body of material as “Tradition”—and that’s where things get really tricky. We have to acknowledge and agree up-front that when we church people (and anyone else who uses the term, actually) throw out the word “Tradition” what we are appealing to is very rarely actual teachings written in actual texts by actual people at actual times. Instead, we are referring to a synthesis which has, in theory, amalgamated actual teachings from actual people into a more-or-less coherent body of teaching, practice, and devotion.

This synthesis then becomes “Tradition.”

When we fight over “Tradition,” we are far more often fighting over our syntheses that we call “Tradition.”

That’s far too easy, though—let’s complicate things a bit…

In fact, most of us—especially the more invested of us—don’t just bring a synthesis to the table, we bring a metasythesis which is composed of quite a mix of interlocking and sometimes contradictory syntheses all mashed together under the solitary label of “Tradition.”

Think of it this way. When I make an appeal to “Tradition”, I’m making an appeal to my understanding of Christian teaching, practice, and devotion as filtered through and privileging insights from the Church Fathers, early medieval monasticism, the English Reformation, the Caroline Divines, and Anglo-Catholicism with a side-order of the Lutheran Confessions.

Now—every single one of those labels represents a synthesis. How I mash them all together into something even vaguely coherent is my metasynthesis.  We all do this. I’m lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to think and read a lot about this and to have an awareness that that’s what I’m up to.

Everybody has a synthesis, but most people both receive them and deploy them unconsciously or subconsciously. We acquire them from our rectors, our teachers, our liturgies, from conversations, from study, from blogs…the list goes on and on.

At this point I’ll stop working on this line and restate my central thesis to this point: When church-folk speak of “Tradition,” we refer to a usually  subconscious synthesis of the Church’s past teachings, practices, and devotions.

Turning to the syntheses and metasyntheses themselves, some are better than others. To evaluate these, I would say that the three major criteria would be:

  • how compelling a synthesis is
  • how comprehensive a synthesis is
  • how historically grounded a synthesis is

This is where we get into muddy territory. I believe that there are quite a lot of syntheses floating around out there that are quite compelling but which are severely limited in terms of their comprehensiveness and especially their historical grounding.

Ground Zero here is the Vincentian Canon: “Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” As Caelius noted in highly memorable and quotable fashion, this canon fails through irony; its original purpose was to discredit the writings of Augustine on grace, claiming that they were a novelty. In essence, this canon is a one-sentence synthesis stating that what the Roman Catholic Church teaches now is what it has always taught, no more, no less. Very compelling for its clarity and its simplicity. In terms of historicity and confirmability—it works far better as a rallying cry than an effective synthesis. Indeed, if one were to attempt to utilize this synthesis in practice, where would you begin?

I truly love Thomas Ken’s words but see in them a similar problem: “I am dying in the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith professed by the whole Church before the disunion of East and West; and, more particularly, in the Communion of the Church of England, as it stands distinguished from both Papal and Protestant innovation, and adheres to the Doctrine of the Cross.” Again, a classic rallying cry—but historically speaking, what texts, what liturgies do we appeal to? If we ask the simple question, “How does one fast in Lent?” this Tradition can not and does not give us one clear answer; instead it gives us a range. If we’re looking for a single answer, this synthesis cannot give it to us. We must choose amongst the available options on the basis of other criteria, other syntheses. Furthermore, this construal of Tradition hacks off how many centuries (i.e., nothing after the “disunion”)? One must assume that it picks up again at the establishment of the mentioned “Church of England” but when and where—especially given Ken’s own rocky relationship with his church?

Without going into specifics, I think that it is fair to say that most of the current Anglican culture warriors are operating with syntheses that may well be compelling but that fail on the criteria of both comprehensiveness and historicity. Of these last two, I place a heavy emphasis on the second. A synthesis that cannot be verified by reference to particular documents from particular times falls more into the realm of politically malleable myth than authentic expression of the historic Christian faith.

So, to summarize and restate: A good synthesis must be compelling, comprehensive, and be built on fact. Statements about what Christians have believed in the past must be rooted in documents, liturgies, and actual evidence. We have to be honest about what’s there, what’s not, and the degree to which other considerations govern our choices.

Too, attention to actual fact reminds us of the importance of comprehensiveness. Specifically, I’ve read too much history and too much theology to say that the Tradition is truly univocal on many things. Because of comprehensiveness, I recognize that my synthesis cannot be hegemonic. That is, I recognize that I have sub-selected strands within the Tradition that I think best proclaim the Gospel to me and my people at this time. I recognize that there are other strands within the Tradition that are not only different from but that disagree with other strands—including mine. (I.e., some Reformation, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox strands simply do not play well with one another; some strands of monastic and Scholastic don’t play well; Gaulish monasticism and St Augustine; etc ad nauseum…)

At the end of the day, very few people will do the work of creating a synthesis or metasynthesis for how they understand and embody the Christian Tradition.

And that’s perfectly fine.

What’s crucial, though, for thinkers and leaders in the Church, is that we have an awareness of what syntheses are out there, how they collide and clash with one another, and how they rank in terms of being compelling, comprehensive, and historically-grounded. I believe that part of the task of Church historians is the creation of effective syntheses that start with historical fact and theological truth that are compelling for our clergy and congregations. I’d suggest that this is the real value and power of a work like Martin Thornton’s English Spirituality—not that it teaches everything anyone needs to know but that it presents a clear, compelling, and factually grounded synthesis of how the Church has taught and lived.

And we need more like it.

11 thoughts on “Tradition: Between Synthesis and Historicity

  1. Christopher


    This is a very fine set of requirements:

    how compelling a synthesis is
    how comprehensive a synthesis is
    how historically grounded a synthesis is

    As you hint at, part of our Anglican heritage (and catholicity from an Anglican pov which is really to be honest about the range within Tradition as a whole) also must make room not only for synthesis but ongoing tension. While I can and do synthesize Cranmer’s justificatory concern and Andrewes’ Real Presence concern as equally catholic concerns, others cannot, or have developed theologies further in such ways that the two concerns collide rather than coincide, even cohere.

    We live not only with this synthesis, perhaps best seen in Ramsey, but with the collisions. Anglican theologizing, especially that not related to our core doctrine or dogma, as AKMA makes clear, requires ongoing conversation sometimes irresolvable, contingency (and implied humility or as I would put it an hermeneutic of critical appreciation), and coming together in common prayer nevertheless. In other words, for our syntheses to be true they must break open onto Someone more, to draw on Ramsey’s words about the Church, namely, they must break open onto Christ whose Person is never less than the proclamation of Scripture and profession of Creed, but always more than can be held by words.

    One of the things I have been in conversation with Lutherans for some time is that in their understanding of the Word’s words, “they do what they say.” Precisely so, and as an Anglican, I have to add given our Platonic heritage, “neither He, nor his words are exhausted by their doing.” The Mystery of God’s Persons remains in a similar way that Rahner’s maxim is not two-way from an Eastern pov. Yes, the Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity, and yes, the Immanent Trinity can never be less than or conflict with the Economic Trinity, but no, the Immanent Trinity cannot be collapses into the Economic in such a way that the Mystery of God is done away.

  2. F. Gregory Wassen

    Dear Derek,

    That is probably the most perceptive assessment I have yet seen and heard about “Tradition.” My own personal encounters with a great many people absolutely backs up what you have said.

    There is just one thing I have some difficulty with. The “Vincentian Canon” read in its own context it seems to refer to a very specific range of things: namely those things not clearly taught in the Scriptures. The so-called “Vincentian Canon” assumes the primacy of Scripture and whatever cannot be clearly established directly therefrom is to be considered through the prism of the Vincentian Canon. I am also unconvinced – as a side note – that the canon or St. Vincent were aiming specifically at St. Augustine. The same has often been said of St. John Cassian, but I think that reading of Cassian (and St. Vincent with whom he is often associated in this regard) has been rendered implausible by Augustine Casiday in his major work on St. John Cassian. He also also provided an alternative narrative which, I would argue, is much more plausible. One thing he points out for example is that concerning “free-will” Cassian is on board with Augustine against the Pelegians for the will (to Cassian) is sick, broken, unreliable and in need of divine grace; whereas for the Pelagians the will cannot do wrong by virtue of what it is. In short – I think the “Vincentian Canon” is often mis-used and by some polemicists even abused.

    Other than that … The main thesis of your post, in my opinion, is spot on!

    Many thanks.

    Fr. Gregory +

  3. adhunt

    A wonderful post, and very insightful. I wonder if perhaps I might add one thing to your list which in some ways gives authority to certain types of ‘Tradition’ and ‘Metasynthesis’:’ That is ‘Reception.’ How Tradition has been received and practiced in as wide a slice of the Church as we can comprehend gives extra authority to certain ‘Traditional’ readings of this or that theology.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    Fr. Gregory, Thanks for your comment! (And your blog which hadn’t come to my attention before…) My main introduction to Vincent was the intro in the NPNF which takes the anti-Augustinian view. I see Quasten also maintains more more of an Augustinian stance for him. I’ll have to reread the Commonitory with this position in mind. I note also Quasten’s comments on the Canon:

    “Vincent is the first to assemble a patristic dossier by citing the testimony of patres probabiles. Church history has shown that Vincent’s criteria, seemingly adequate at first, are difficult in their application. It is no simple mater to find unanimity if all the truths have been contested, and it is likewise difficult to establish antiquity and apostolicity. Every historical inquest requires a critical competency.”

    Thanks, Tony. Reception is tricky because it too often rests on a perception of what has been received. Witness today’s debates on sexuality. As I’ve mentioned here and elsewhere, both major sides very rarely do hard and serious thinking around the fact that for at least a thousand years in the West and for quite a while longer in the East the received wisdom is that celibacy is the theological norm (if not the practical norm) and that “marriage between one man and one woman” was the distant second of options. But , yes, reception does play into it as well.

    Christopher–yes, of course! Allowing room for tension enables creative tension that can harbor the Gospel better than some simple resolutions.

  5. adhunt

    What would an Episcopalian thread be without a casual mention of sex? ;) Really, I’m all the way there with you on this post, including the need to resist absolutist hegemonic understandings of “Tradition.” I wonder though if the ‘sexuality’ cipher, on account of it’s familiarity, could be set aside and the same question asked of a different and far more important issue.

    I’m sure that if TEC started to advocate the Lutheran revisionist christologies of the last 50 years and incorporated them into the BCP, “Traditional” christology of the catholic ecumenical councils would look like a pretty strong “Tradition” to many such as myself.

    I merely mean to point out that the “there is no (real/complete) Tradition” is as much a cipher and will-to-(em)power theological revision and novelty as anything else. Of course you weren’t advocating this; it’s just a thought going off of your post.

  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Couldn’t avoid it, you know—casual mentions of sex are contractual requirements… :-)

    You’re absolutely right—one of the synthesis most advocated on the Episcopal Left is precisely that there is no meaningful Tradition—and it’s crap.

    Thinking of the ecumenical councils, I debated with myself for a while if I should include Lancelot Andrewes on the sources of Anglican theology: “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four councils, and five centuries and the fathers who wrote therein.” I decided not to as it moves the discussion in some rather different directions although I think it’s valuable part of the broader conversation.

    Umm, at the risk of seriously derailing the thread, to which “Lutheran revisionist christologies” are you referring?

  7. adhunt

    I did always like that Andrewes quote.

    I was mostly referring to Moltmann (transgressing God’s impassibility) and Jenson with the a/en-sarkos debate. I’m not trying to write them off, Jenson least of all (Moltmann is terribly boring), but their christologies tend to move past the “catholic” tradition in what seems to me to be significant ways.

  8. fathergregory


    “Vincent is the first to assemble a patristic dossier by citing the testimony of patres probabiles. Church history has shown that Vincent’s criteria, seemingly adequate at first, are difficult in their application. It is no simple mater to find unanimity if all the truths have been contested, and it is likewise difficult to establish antiquity and apostolicity. Every historical inquest requires a critical competency.”

    Indeed. Perhaps the most that can be said for the canon is that it could point to an understanding of “communion” and “orthodox” as described by Turner and Radner in “The Fate of Communion.” It will not serve, I would it argue did not so serve in Vincent’s time either, as a precise criterion at all. The most it does is establish an indicator of what truth looks like. I look at is a descriptive and not as giving a definition. Everywhere, always, by all are all terms that express “communion” in some sense or another. It points to the idea that truth is discerned communally, and not individually. A man is not an Island (nor is a woman) kind-a-thing.

    Concerning anti-Augustinianism Casiday – I think – argued that it is mostly invented by Prosper and a reading of the facts through Prosper’s eyes. Without Prosper’s bias Vincent (and Cassian which is Casiday’s main focus) is much closer to Augustine than Prosper was willing to admit.

    Fr. Gregory +

  9. Lee

    Derek, given your training, I can well understand why you’d be particularly interested in historicity. Still, I’d like you to say some more about the criteria of compellingness and comprehensiveness. They both seem fraught with philosophical issues and in need of some fairly serious explication of their own.

  10. Derek the Ænglican

    Oh, I make no bones about the fact that there are philosophical issues around defining these. I use “compellingness” to refer to how plausible, communicable, and useful a synthesis is. That is, people have to be able to wrap their heads around it and use it in some meaningful way. As I say above, This seems to be the key criterion these days and if this is met the others go out the window. People tend to use syntheses that they like and that support their beliefs and goals whether they’re grounded in the other criteria or not.

    The comprehensiveness criterion still needs some thinking through. My insistence on comprehensiveness is that a proper synthesis that claims to represent Big-C and Big-T “Christian Tradition” cannot simply be a narrow range of times, places, and authors but validly represents that we are talking about 2 thousand years spread across a host of cultures. As a specific for-instance, I reject that Tradition equates to neo-Scholasticism—which is how it is interpreted in certain Anglo-Catholic circles. Yes, I think that we have to identify certain strands that are most important for us and our appropriation of the whole of tradition, but we must also recognize that our strand is not exhaustive of The Tradition.

    At the very same time, I recognize that we do need to narrow the tradition based on who and what we are. I.e., just how much Eastern Orthodox tradition do/should Anglicans incorporate? On one hand Ken et al. will have one answer, on the other Anglicanism grew organically out of the Western Church.

    So, yes, there are still some philosophical and methodological things to think through here, Lee.

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