I do not want to be too hard on my church at the time, for most churches—even Reformed churches—spend little time in self-conscious reflection on their theological tradition. But when we are unaware of the preconceptions we bring to the text, we have little hope of discerning whether our traditions are actually taught in Scripture. If we do not know the beliefs we bring to the text, we cannot see where they rightly or wrongly govern our reading of God’s Word. Tradition, not Scripture, ends up controlling us.
By the Lord’s grace, I have been largely spared from the other assumption that leads to doctrinal error, namely, that we are to be “lone ranger” theologians who formulate doctrine on our own. History is littered with bad and heretical “biblical” doctrines “discovered” by those who thought they did not need the community of God’s people in order to understand biblical doctrine. Joseph Smith founded Mormonism because he decided that he did not need the established church to help him with doctrine, indeed, that the established church was actually a hindrance to biblical understanding. That left Smith a polygamous polytheist who died at the hands of an angry mob.
God never meant for us to study doctrine as isolated individuals. The study and formulation of doctrine is first and foremost a communal doctrine. After all, the Lord revealed Himself to a corporate body. The Bible is not written just to me personally but to all the saints of God. Thus, God designed us to plumb the depths of His revelation together as individual congregations and larger church assemblies. There should be no such thing as autonomous doctrinal study, but we should examine doctrine in concert with our forebears and contemporaries. We should read their works, check our reading of Scripture against theirs, and doubt our conclusions if no one else has reached them. In this, the reformers are our model. Though they affirmed the Bible as the sole infallible source of doctrine, they understood the proper role of God’s corporate people in knowing His truth. They charged that the medieval church had abandoned the best of its earlier thinking, but did not say that we should cast off all who studied Scripture before us.
In sum, we will also go wrong in our doctrine if we are unconscious of our traditions. The pharisees were unaware that much of what they believed was not from Scripture, so they confused later interpretations with divine revelation. Thus, they could not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Likewise, if we do not know the pedigree of our beliefs, how will we be able to compare them with Scripture? We will also go wrong in our doctrine when we exalt ourselves and ignore our traditions. A little humility and awareness of our heritage will go a long way toward keeping us on the path of sound doctrine.