Like so many words, the word ‘tradition’ has its roots in Latin. I have retained enough of my knowledge of Latin to remember that it goes back to the Latin verb tradere, which means: to deliver, to pass on. So, a tradition is about passing things on from one period to the next, from one generation to the following. In itself it is a rather neutral word.
For many Protestant theologians, however, there is (or in any case, was) a rather dubious aspect. For the term ‘tradition’ clearly has a Catholic ring to it. The reformers promoted the ‘Sola Scriptura’ principle (the Bible alone), but the Catholics believed that through the centuries the church has generated a treasury of wisdom and insight (the tradition) that provides a source of revelation, besides the Bible. This, of course, was totally at odds with the views of men like Calvin and Luther, et cetera, and their spiritual heirs.
Adventist not merely see a dubious aspect when they look at tradition. For them the word points to a complex of phenomena that must be firmly rejected. Of course, to them the Catholic view that tradition has a similar kind of authority as the Bible, was a terrible heresy, but the Adventists also discovered in other Christian denominations a predilection for ‘dead forms’ and ‘unchangeable traditions.’ What was being said and done in various denominations, was not put to the test of Scripture, but was largely prescribed by documents and decisions of synods which together formed the ecclesial tradition.
I could not help but think of this phenomenon of ‘tradition’, when I was watching TV last night and saw a report of ‘Prinsjesdag’. Prinsjesdag is the day on which the Dutch Queen makes a tour through the city of the Hague, and reads a statement to the two houses of Parliament and thereby opens the new parliamentary year. I was not home in the morning when the golf-plated carriage, drawn by eight horses, made its tour through the center of the Hague, and I had not seen how the Queen had delivered her speech on behalf of the government. My wife had, however, been thoughtful enough to record the event for me. This ‘Prinsjesdag’ is an excellent example of a ‘tradition’ that developed over a few centuries and has been handed down to us. At the end of the eighteenth century Prince William V of Orange celebrated his birthday with a lot of festivities and somehow (I have not been able to find how) this day developed into our current ‘Prinsjesdag’ on the third Tuesday of the month of September. The gold-plated carriage is part of the procession since 1903, shortly after Queen Wilhelmina had received this unique vehicle as a present from the citizenry of Amsterdam, when she was crowned as head of state. Gradually the festivities have become a special occasion for the women who are part of the government and of the two houses of Parliament, to wear the most outrageous hats.
What do I think of all this? To be honest, I would not make a special trip to the Hague and be there at dawn to get a good spot from where I might catch a glimpse of Her Majesty as she comes by in her golden vehicle. Yet, this kind of thing does give a certain color to life. A nation cannot do without at least some of these traditions.
Last Sunday I was caught out in Brussels, Belgium, by the fact that it was a car-free Sunday. I had convened a meeting of the governing body of the Adventist Church in Belgium, and all committee members had to find a way to reach the office in Brussels by public transport. I had expected to hear a fair amount of complaint. But there was nothing of the sort. After eleven years, the car-free Sunday in the main cities of Belgium has become a much appreciated tradition, which most Belgians want to keep. Everywhere in Brussels I saw markets and other festivities. The bicycles were omnipresent and had all the space they wanted. Kids on their roller skates had taken possession of the asphalt on the main ring road around the city center. When, after my meeting, I walked the 25 minutes or so to the South Station, I felt increasingly positive about this whole thing. Yes, I thought, this is really a good tradition!
It would be wrong to be locked into traditions that must be observed in every tiny detail. Yes, traditions must have continuity, but there must also be the freedom to constantly adapt. Some traditions may gradually disappear, while other, new traditions, will emerge. We need traditions in our own lives, in the region or country where we live, and also in the faith community of which we are part. It contributes to what we call identity.
To be quite honest, if some traditions would disappear from my church, I would not miss them. But a church must definitely have traditions. If there is nothing we can hand on to those who will come after us, things that we find important and that make us what we are—and this is more than a list of ‘fundamental beliefs’—we are in a sorry state indeed.
Being grateful for the traditions that have been handed on to us, while feeling free to adapt these, when and where desirable, and creating new traditions ourselves and handing these on to those who come after us—this make a faith community into a living movement.