The Fructification of Faith


Occasionally a congregant will give me tickets to the symphony. Such performances are impressive when you think that an orchestra consisting of so many individuals playing vastly different instruments can produce such a rhythmically coherent sound. It works because these musicians rely upon two crucial ingredients: a score, which explains the notes to play, and a conductor, who provides personal direction. It would be catastrophic if the orchestra tore up the score and difficult to play without a conductor.

An even more amazing fact is that two orchestras playing from identical scores can sound so different. When Arturo Toscanini performed Haydn’s Oratorio, The Creation at La Scala, he did so with the punctilious style for which he was famous. Leonard Bernstein, on the other hand, conducted Haydn in Vienna as only someone with his eccentric personality could. They presented the same score in a different style, which resulted in a different orchestral sound. The same principle applies to worship.

It is appropriate to expect variety and creativity in the Christian tradition, just as in conducting. God who exists in three persons, relating to millions of different people in diverse cultures and time periods will naturally generate a rich collection of religious experience. Such divine activity should be recognized and celebrated, for it bears witness to the wonder of a God who relates personally to his creation. Having come from an evangelical background, Roman Catholic scholar Thomas Howard is well acquainted with this dynamic:

Surely this riotous fructifying of fashions in public worship suggests something deeply significant about the gospel, namely, that it is a seed of such glorious vitality that, when it is planted anywhere among us mortals, it will sprout, burgeon, and bear good fruit. And more: in the colorful heaps displayed in this harvest we find the rich and particular genius of each tribe and people, redeemed, purified, raised, and touched with eternity itself. What you find in Spain and Latin America differs greatly from what you find in the Netherlands or Norway. Sicilians do not order their worship as do the Watutsi; nor does Irish Catholicism yield just the look given things by the Filipinos.[1]

As Professor Howard describes, we should expect differences of style in public worship depending upon one’s context. If you doubt this, find a missionary in your church who is home on furlough; take him or her out to lunch and ask him to describe the worship style of people among whom he serves. Variety is to be expected. However, we must remember that while Toscanini and Bernstein differed in their presentations of Haydn’s score, the broad outline remained fundamentally the same. In “The Heavens are Telling…” woodwinds carry the melody. Occasionally, the melody is accented and punctuated by the horns; but the two instruments are never confused. If either conductor failed to differentiate between the horns and woodwinds, the integrity of Haydn’s famous chorus would have been compromised.

A similar differentiation is needed in the way we relate Scripture and tradition. We recognize Scripture as the written score, inspired by God, while tradition constitutes its human application. Such tradition possesses real authority, but only insofar as it conveys the score. In other words, there is latitude in the way God’s people may experience and express the divine melody, so long as we distinguish the score (Bible) and the conductor (teacher and preacher).

Herein is the concern that evangelicals have when our Roman Catholic friends put tradition on the same plane as the Bible (in doctrines such as papal primacy or the dogmas of Mary). The conductor inadvertently gets confused with the score. It is what led Protestant Reformers to insist upon the supreme authority of the biblical text in the first place. In the words of Tony Lane: “Sola Scriptura is the statement that the church can err.” But we should recognize this problem is bigger than any particular Christian tradition. All of us—Protestants and Catholics alike—have the propensity to lose sight of what constitutes the sole inspired source.

Fructification is desirable (to use Howard’s image), but we must ensure that we properly differentiate fruit from the divinely inspired root.

[1] Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997) 34.

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