Arvo Pärt, Classical Music, and a Proposal for an Evangelical Understanding of Tradition

If you haven’t heard of Arvo Pärt, then I suggest you stop reading right now and look him up and take time to listen. The first piece that I heard was Spiegel Im Spiegel which immediately caught my attention by its simplicity and beauty. Now, I am an armchair Classical music enthusiast who tends to stick with the Four B’s: Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Brubeck (I guess it’s supposed to be three, but some throw Brubeck in there for good measure). Pärt’s music was foreign to my listening ears, so I took it upon myself to find out more about this Estonian-born composer. I stumbled upon this article at the NPR Classical website which had an interesting take upon Pärt’s style evinced in the title: Arvo Pärt’s Timeless Twist on Tradition. The idea that tradition can change seems to be at odds with our (Evangelical) normal (prejudiced) understanding of tradition as static and unchanging. Unfortunately, the concept of tradition is a little more complicated than that. Yves Congar in his book The Meaning of Tradition distinguishes between the multiple aspects of tradition: the content, the action, and the subjects (the one giving and the one receiving)–note: it has been a while since I’ve read the book and I don’t have it on had so that may not be the exact wording. Jaroslav Pelikan appeals to the unavoidability of tradition in his book The Vindication of Tradition in which he shows that (to take a phrase from his interview with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith) the only alternative to tradition is bad tradition. With that in mind, it seems necessary for this generation of evangelical’s to articulate a mature understanding of tradition. Can they, like Arvo Pärt, produce a timeless twist on tradition? Some are trying (i.e., D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism). Mark S. Medley in his article “Stewards, Interrogators, and Inventors: Towards a Practice of Tradition,” (Pro Ecclesia 18.1) attempts to construct a method of engaging tradition that goes beyond just asserting the need to do so (as is often the case). A. T. B. McGowan in his book The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage provides four principles for engaging tradition:

First, tradition is vital and must be recognized as an integral part of being the church. We are not the first Christians and we cannot pretend that with an open Bible we can ignore all those who have gone ahead of us in the faith. Second, tradition must never stand alongside Scripture as a parallel source of authority, nor as an inclusive concept that includes Scripture. The Voice of God the Holy Spirit speaking in and through the Scriptures must be our final authority. Third, tradition in the evangelical sense must always mean a recognition of the biblical, theological and ecclesiastical decisions made by those who have gone before us in the faith and the importance of these decisions for our self-understanding. Fourth, tradition must always be subject to review and reformation, in the light of God continuing to speak to us by his Spirit through the Word. In short, our evangelical theology of tradition must guard the authority of the voice of God speaking in Scripture and yet at the same time take seriously the concept of tradition as the collective voice of the church through the ages (p. 185).

I think this is a good place to start for those who have been reared to despise the concept of tradition (something rampant in American culture). While this is not my main area of study, I think it will come up again and again and I hope to do further study on the subject in the future, namely defining and engaging tradition in light of the Trinity.


4 thoughts on “Arvo Pärt, Classical Music, and a Proposal for an Evangelical Understanding of Tradition

  1. I hate to say it, but A. T. B. McGowan’s definition of tradition sounds little different from the same old same old we always hear from the Evangelicals, and it is either distinctly self-refuting or sufficiently vague (c.f. point four) that it is almost useless.

    • First, you need to explain how it is little different from the same old same old–not just assert it. My contention was that the typical Evangelical understanding of tradition (with which you and I were reared) is one in which tradition is explicitly denied (though implicitly affirmed in it’s own way through peer pressure and exclusion of those with differing interpretations of the biblical text). This is not his position and leads me to see it as different than the same old same old.

      Second, as I affirmed at the end, this is good (appropriate is probably a better word) for those who are still hesitant with the idea of tradition and see it as inherently contradictory to the gospel.

      Third, it’s unclear how point four is either self-refuting or sufficiently vague and to make my point I’ll assert that your disjunction is either self-refuting or sufficiently vague. 🙂 Well, maybe not self-refuting but at least sufficiently vague. Nonetheless, his propositions come at the end of a long argument concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in Scripture and tradition. It is the Holy Spirit who speaks both in Scripture and tradition (which is why we need to take tradition seriously) and the Holy Spirit still speaks through the church today (at least, that’s how I’m understanding him–I haven’t read the book in a while). It is the combination of these three venues through which the Holy Spirit speaks that need to be taken seriously. If our heritage can recognize that fact alone, I would be pleased. The issues of how they interact (which is what I think you are criticizing) come later. Baby steps. But, I would be very interested in hearing how the idea of critically engaging with tradition through Scripture and the Holy Spirit speaking today is self-refuting or vague.

      • It is self-refuting, or sufficiently vague, in that if “In short, our evangelical theology of tradition must guard the authority of the voice of God speaking in Scripture and yet at the same time take seriously the concept of tradition as the collective voice of the church through the ages” as he claims, then we have an incoherent concept of Tradition AND Scripture. No one should deny that the Spirit is speaking as it were through both. The Evangelical line, however, would have that the Spirit says one thing in scripture and another in Tradition. Yet, how could that be? Is God to be divided in his will? Can the Spirit say opposing things, opposing doctrines? Of course not. At bottom of this issue is the issue of the doctrine of the Church. McGowan has to say what he does because he must, as an Evangelical, hold the line of a very particular doctrine of the church that frankly is opposed with Tradition. However, he feels that he needs to pay lip service to traditions and hence his emphasis on the importance of traditions. But, what could the importance be? If the Spiritus Sanctus speaks through Scripture, Tradition, and the Church, oughtn’t it be saying the same thing? If this is what he truly believes then, logically speaking, he should not be an Evangelical. Thus, he is either illogical, stubborn, or a fool. My bet is on the second option with perhaps some of the first mixed in.

        As for an explanation of how it does not differ from the same old same old Evangelical line, I will leave that to a good historical theologian to determine 🙂 He at least admits explicitly that there is a “protestant” or “evangelical” tradition, and many others, and in that sense you are correct to say that he differs. My point is that this difference is superficial; at bottom he runs into the same problems (which are philosophical in nature).

      • I shall briefly summarize your position so as to do no injustice to your argument by constructing a straw man and welcome any clarification or correction. Your argument is that McGowan’s position is self-refuting in that he ultimately has the Holy Spirit saying two different/contradictory things. Correct? I don’t see at the moment how that is sufficiently vague to the point where it becomes useless, so perhaps you could explain that further. As it stands, your argument focuses on the self-contradiction and it is to that that I will attend. Sorry for the verbosity, but I just watched the first two episodes in the HBO mini-series “John Adams” and find it hard not to imitate their elocution. I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it yet.

        I agree that the issue forces us to consider the nature and function of the church, though I would contend that such a doctrine is itself secondary to our understanding of the Trinity and Incarnation, but that is a separate issue and we shall discuss that only when the occasion merits it. If our discussion forces us to debate it, then we shall. Also, the reason why he “has to say what he does” is irrelevant as to whether what he says is true or not. I must also remind you that his four propositions come near the end of an entire chapter in which he discussed thoroughly the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox understanding of Tradition. I have not read it in a while, but I doubt that he is merely paying lip service. Let us not get distracted by bulverisms and red herrings. The issue at hand, however, is that McGowan’s fourth proposition is self-contradictory because he has the Holy Spirit saying two different/contradictory things. We both agree that it would be absurd for the Holy Spirit to do such a thing, so we may proceed from there. First, it must be stated that one of the most important facts about the Holy Spirit, other than that he is third person in the Trinity, is that as Jesus said, he blows wherever he wills. On this principal I contend that the Holy Spirit can speak truthfully in multiple “denominations” (though I loath the word) without being self-contradictory which, as we have already established, is absurd. If God can speak through both an ass and the donkey he was riding, then it is possible (though not necessary) that he can speak through differing denominations and the asses (=”theologians”) that lead them (forgive the analogy if it is faulty, but I couldn’t resist putting it in). This must first be agreed upon before the discussion can proceed. If you hold that the Holy Spirit speaks through only one “denomination” (again, I dislike the word/concept, but I must work with what I have), then the discussion has ended and we must debate whether or not that is the case. As it stands, I will continue to defend what I understand McGowan to be saying.

        If you hold that my first point is the case, then I believe you can begin to understand what McGowan is saying. Once one admits that the Holy Spirit can speak through various traditions which at many points contradict each other, then the case becomes how one discerns whether or not what specific proposition proposed by a specific tradition is in fact from the Holy Spirit. For instance, how can one determine whether or not the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate conception (which, by the way, is very similar to the Evangelical understanding of Scripture :)) is true. Can one appeal to history, that the Roman Catholic church has believed that it is the case though without officially proclaiming it a dogma? One can, but I think it is irrelevant to the question. If the question was whether or not Roman Catholic’s have believed Mary to be immaculately conceived, then a thorough investigation of the history is very relevant. But that was not the original question. So, as I hope this example has shown, the issue McGowan is trying to address in his fourth proposition is a method by which one can engage what appears to be contradictory propositions within the history of Christianity as a whole. If you believe that whatever the Church says is true (note: I am not saying that it can or has the right to make any proposition which thereby becomes true. I know that is how some Evangelical’s view it, but I find that to lack understanding and charity), then the issue changes once more and we must discuss the nature of the Church, whether or not doctrine develops, or how councils are determined to be valid. For instance, how do we determine that the Holy Spirit was speaking through all seven Ecumencial Councils and never any others, or never in the West after 1054? Ask Fr. Gregory about it because I am very interested. Rome has the magisterium, but it appears (though I am not making an argument about it, just stating the appearance) that it for the Orthodox it is true because it happened which would entail an interesting understanding of divine providence but that, again, is beside the point). It is in this way that I do not find McGowan’s proposition to be self-contradictory if the first point is admitted. If the Holy Spirit speaks through only the Orthodox, then yes it would be contradictory. But if the Holy Spirit blows wherever he wills, then there are multiple traditions all claiming to be speaking with the voice of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit would not say contradictory things, then we must discern what was from the Holy Spirit and what was from humankind (or worse). McGowan proposes, as Evangelicals do, that Scripture should be the Canon against which competing claims are weighed. I do not think him shallow enough to believe that there is no truth outside of the very words of Scripture, only that Scripture has the deciding say. If you wish to debate that, then, once more, that is a separate issue that we can discuss another time.

        P.s.- If I at any time sounded condescending or a jerk then I apologize. I’ve also been reading Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” and he’s pretty much a jerk throughout and it rubbed off after a while. 🙂

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