January 24, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
While there’s many interesting elements to the biography of St. Timothy, we don’t remember him today for who he was, but for what he did. Timothy was a pastor, one of the two to receive letters from St. Paul that were included as canonical books of the Bible. He was the first generation of pastors, in fact, and today’s reading from Acts tells us how he was chosen.
He arrived in Derbe and Lystra, and behold, a disciple was there named Timothy, a son of a faithful Jewish woman, though a Greek father, who was approved by the brothers in Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted this one to go with him. And taking him, he circumcised him because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all had known that his father was Greek (vv 1-5). They get it all a little backwards, here. The brothers, that is, the congregations, had approved and confirmed Timothy as a suitable candidate, and St. Paul was the one who chose him. Generally, in our church, the churches do the electing and the calling and the ministers do the confirmation and approval by ordination. But as of yet, many of the churches still weren’t established, and St. Timothy’s first call out of seminary was to be St. Paul’s associate pastor on the mission field.
When the two set off through the cities, they brought with them two things that are very unpopular today: tradition and dogma. As they were going through the cities, they were handing down the teachings to be observed, that had been judged by the Apostles and Presbyters who were in Jerusalem (v 4).
Tradition means “to hand down,” or, “to hand over.” It’s the Latin form of the Greek word that is used here to describe the work of Paul and Timothy. In English, “tradition” is only a noun; it sounds funny to say they were “traditioning” the teachings. But tradition simply means, “to hand down.”
There are two errors to avoid with tradition, like the drunken peasant trying to ride a horse. When he starts to fall to one side, he attempts to right himself, only to fall off on the other side. The first error with tradition is rejecting it. When I was in high school, we joked about how resistant Lutherans are to change. Too traditional! We need something new, innovative. We need to toss that old stuff and get contemporary. By the time I was in my late teens, the only kind of religious activity that I and my friends wanted resembled nothing of what we’d grown up with. And can I tell you how many of them are still involved with the Church?
The other error with respect to tradition is blind tradition. That is, doing something simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. This is because we naturally view history as the sum of our own personal experiences. If it was that way when I was a kid, then it’s always got to be that way—I can’t remember it any different way. People who blindly accept tradition consider themselves conservative, but in reality they are preservative—like curators at a museum.
But there is a more excellent way, which I invite you to join me on. It’s a lonely way, but it’s the way of the Gospel. It’s tradition as gift. Because at the very root of that word used to describe St. Timothy and St. Paul’s work is the word, “to give.” Tradition is the gift of the previous generation, handed down to be received by the next. “We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition,” writes Norman Nagel. “Each generation receives from those who went before and, in making that tradition of the Divine Service its own, adds what best may serve in its own day—the living heritage and something new.”
This shows us that what many people consider “tradition” in the Church isn’t the tradition at all. The tradition is the Word of God, the good news of forgiveness and reconciliation with our Father in heaven. Every other custom in the Church—whether it’s vestments that date to apostolic times, or a hymn written just three years ago—must serve the Gospel and be for the good of those who hear it. St. Timothy demonstrates this spirit when he willingly is circumcised, even when the very message that they are delivering is that you don’t have to be circumcised in order to be saved! Christ fulfilled the law of circumcision by Himself being circumcised, and more so by shedding His blood on the cross. But Timothy preserved this custom even though it did not earn him salvation. (Incidentally, his fellow pastor Titus rejected circumcision for the very same reasons).
In addition to tradition, Sts. Paul and Timothy were handing down dogma. Dogma sounds so, well, dogmatic. So rigid. Everyone knows that you can’t make any claim to truth, because there are so many competing truths out there. Who are you to try to bind me to your way of thinking?
The word “dogma” simply means teaching. We also get our word “doctrine” from it. It’s used often in a technical sense to mean religious doctrine, but in some cases it can mean established, authoritative teaching in other fields as well (such as the Monroe Doctrine of US foreign policy). The reason why people so dislike dogma—especially in this present age—is that it excludes your personal opinions.
What is so ironic, though, is that the world does not reject dogma absolutely. The world certainly hates Christian dogma—but they’ve replaced it with a dogma of their own. And it’s much more unforgiving. For example, the prevailing dogma of our culture is that transgenderism must not only be accepted, but also celebrated and awarded. If you express any opinion contrary to this established, cultural dogma, you will be excommunicated. It’s like an inverted story of The Scarlett Letter. Instead of Christian moralists shaming the sinner, it’s the secular moralists who shame anyone who dares transgress secular dogma.
In one sense, people have a point in questioning dogma, especially with the farce the Roman Catholic Church has made out of it. It is Roman dogma that the pope can invent dogma. How’s that for some circular logic? The pope is infallible because the pope says he’s infallible. The reality is that dogma—particularly Christian dogma—is not established by any opinion of man. Christian dogma is Christian because it’s established by Christ. It’s His teaching. But what happens when there’s a disagreement over what Christ has taught, as was the case even in the New Testament?
The dogma that Sts. Paul and Timothy handed down to be observed in the cities where they traveled was teaching that had been judged by the Apostles and the Presbyters who were in Jerusalem. They did not invent the doctrine they taught, but taught the apostolic doctrine. The Apostles were personally appointed by Christ to judge doctrine. Jesus said to [His disciples], “Amen, I say to you that you who follow Me in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on His throne of glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28). This is Jesus’ own mandate to the Apostles to judge doctrine. There is no Gospel according to Jesus, no epistles from Jesus to the Israelites. But we do have words and teaching of the Apostles recorded for us in the New Testament. And it’s why we confess each time in the Nicene Creed that we believe one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.
Tradition and dogma. The world flees from such things. But for Christ’s Church, there is a good and salutary benefit: Therefore, the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number by the day (v 5). The handing down of the apostolic teaching—tradition and dogma—is for the strengthening of the churches in the faith. And being thus strengthened in the faith, they increased in number by the day.
Modern church growth theory gets this completely backwards, and even though they may boast of fantastic numbers, phenomenal numbers, thinking that their numbers prove strength of faith and confirm their teaching. But in practice, the only thing that gets confirmed is the preacher’s ego.
Dearly beloved, let us hold fast to our tradition, to what has been handed down to us as a gift. It’s an astonishingly rich tradition, and it will grab hold of you. Let us not cling to it blindly without testing it against the apostolic doctrine, which is the Holy Scripture. It is for the strengthening of our church, for each of you who also receive this teaching, so that you may also believe.
The Teaching Handed Down from the Apostles Strengthens the Faith of the Churches
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard