Systematic Theology, Tradition, and the Cross

While I’ve been waiting for a copy of Cox’s book to read, Father Stephen has posted an excerpt from Richard Wurmbrand’s With God in Solitary Confinement.

Jesus Himself thought unsystematically on the cross. He began with forgiveness; He spoke of a paradise in which even a robber had a place; then he despaired that perhaps there might be no place in paradise even for Him, the Son of God. He felt Himself forsaken. His thirst was so unbearable that He asked for water. Then He surrendered His spirit into His Father’s hand. But there followed no serenity, only a loud cry. Thank you for what you have been trying to teach me. I have the impression that you were only repeating, without much conviction, what others have taught you.

In this, we hear the echo of that oft-repeated axiom from the fourth century Orthodox monastic Evagrius of Pontus: A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian. In the West, we tend to be systematic about things, studying them, taking them apart and seeing how they all fit back together. But this is not living the Way. The Way operates on us, in us. The Way changes us. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Where is the systematic theology in that? What is being fixed? If we spend our time praying intead of worrying about re-forming this or that area of the church, this or that system of theology, we’ll end up living The Way instead of trying to figure out the right form. But we need form. We need structure. We create structures to provide a framework for living. Take away the structure, take away the Tradition and we’ll create new ones. Jaraslov Pelikan (a late convert to Orthodoxy) observed

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition. 

At another time, he said “The only alternative to Tradition is bad tradition.” And this is where we end up without creeds: with bad tradition. In fact, we end up re-formulating our thinking so much — re-creating our personal creed — that we don’t have time to actually live it. As Henry David Thoreau observed:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. 

This is why we have Tradition. First, because if we didn’t have it, we would end up creating it anyway and, second, because we want to create deep mental paths. Where systematic theology failed us, Tradition offers a way out.

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