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The Reformed vs. Tertullian on Tradition


“Tradition” has become a dirty word for much of Protestantism today. It is often set up against the “word of God.” One must either choose the “pure Word of God” or the “vain traditions of men.” The latter group is relegated to the same circle of hell as those insufferable, Pope-loving Catholics, clobbered with the baseball bat of association fallacies and laughed out of the room. It has not always been this way, in an older form of Protestantism the question wasn't one of either/or, the question was how can I have a faithful synthesis of a both/and.

What this article seeks to do is to look at how the early Christians conceived of “tradition” in the area of our praxis (such as mode of Baptism, worship, etc.) through the lens of the early thinker Tertullian (A.D. 155-220) in his work De Corona (A.D. 201). This work will show a sharp contrast to two different popular views of tradition in Protestantism. First, it will be against the Reformed notion of the “Regulative Principle,” and second, it will be against the popular notion of worship which has developed in wider evangelicalism. In contrast to these two non-patristic views of the relation of Praxis and Tradition, the view which best represents the witness of Tertullian is that of the Anglican way.

First, I will describe and define the three views which will be compared to that of Tertullian’s, then I will explicate Tertullian’s view in De Corona, and lastly, I will compare the modern views and that of Tertullian’s showing the Patristic nature of the Anglican principle.

The “Regulative Principle”

Although there is a wide range of applications within the Reformed world of the Regulative Principle, from pseudo-Contemporary Christian Worship to a more classically Reformed, Acapella Exclusive Psalmody, we may discern a golden thread that runs theologically between all groups. This golden thread is that all is done “jure divino,” that is, all elements of worship must be done by divine right. In this view scripture clearly and sufficiently commands a law of worship that must be followed by all. This law of worship is discerned through the explicit commands and examples of scripture and through those things implied via good and necessary consequence.

At this point, there is not much difference between the Reformed and Anglican views of praxis, but the Reformed go one step further, that this law of Worship is exclusive. It excludes the church in its’ praxis to permit practices that are not contained in the law of worship in scripture, excluding those things practiced “jure humano” (by human right), whether it be the commands of the church, or unwritten tradition passed down. The church is not permitted to continue those practices of tradition which lie outside of those things established by divine right.

The Westminster Confession of Faith lays this out,

“God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also...the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men..or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

The “Evangelical” principle

Next, the modern evangelical principle. This is really a principle without a principle. There is no principled foundation on which this principle stands, but the foundation of taste. The prerequisite which must be fulfilled is that of personal satisfaction and popularity. This view is truly anti-tradition in that it may skim a generalized set of elements that worship contains (music, preaching, baptism, maybe the Eucharist), but the mode in which these generalized principles are carried out is completely determined by the whims of culture. Worship becomes evolutionary, changing from generation to generation as the wider cultural changes. There is a complete disconnect from the balanced emphases and practices which the historic church has carried out.

The Anglican Principle

The Anglican principle in many respects fulfills the characterization often leveled at Anglicans of being the Via Media. The Anglican Principle affirms that the “Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies,” and this power to decree extends beyond those things which are in scripture positively, the only limit being those things “contrary to God's Word written.” We see here the distinction between the Reformed and Anglican views of praxis, in the Reformed view everything must be done by “jure divino,” whereas in the Anglican view they may be done by “jure humano” as long as it does not contradict those things ordered by “jure divino.”

Further, the 39 Articles state,

Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the Traditions and Ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Not only is it wrong in the Anglican view to break those practices which are established by “jure divino,” but it is also wrong