United Methodists often speak about four aspects of religious authority: scripture, tradition, reason and experience. This is sometimes known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, though there is some question of whether it is either Wesleyan or a quadrilateral.
Of the four, I have grown most in the past several years in my appreciation for the authority of tradition. And by “tradition,” I mean “catholicity.”
Traditions aren’t authoritative simply because they have become habitual or routine. This is especially true in our culture which, by and large, has no memory. Contemporary American evangelicals have “traditions” that are barely a few years old. In our culture, if you do something once it is a novelty. By the time you do it a dozen times, it is a tradition.
But neither is tradition authoritative simply because it is old.
Authoritative Christian tradition has deep roots and broad acceptance within the church throughout the ages. That’s what I mean by catholicity.
Furthermore, the authority of catholic (little “c”) tradition is always built upon (and subject to) the apostolic authority of the Holy Scriptures.
The story of the church is a continuation of the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David and Jeremiah. It is the fulfillment of the story of Israel, and its prophets, priests and kings. It is the out working of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Certainly, human sinfulness is also evident in the church’s story, as it is elsewhere in the story of Israel. But through it all, God has worked in and through his church by the power of the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
And if the Holy Spirit has been at work in the church for the past two thousand years, then God’s people still needs to discern his authority in the story of the church that bears his name.