Wan Wei Hsien has written some reflections on Irenaeus’s concept of “tradition” in his Against Heresies. His concluding thoughts suggest, and I concur, that Irenaeus can sharpen and narrow the way the term is often used:
I wrote at the beginning of this post that Fr. John’s explanation of St. Irenaeus both sharpens and narrows the meaning of the word “tradition” for me. I had often thought of tradition as something “fuller” than scripture–of which scripture was only a “part”. Reading this chapter and St. Irenaeus, however, showed me that this notion actually approximates the Gnostic understanding of oral tradition. Perhaps one can say that, for St. Irenaeus, tradition is the “performance” of scripture in the life of the Church—unwritten but fundamentally tied to its “script”.
Understanding tradition in this way, Wei Hsien says, “My Protestant brothers and sisters don’t seem as far away.” (I don’t recall precisely which faith community Wei Hsien calls home.) I would add that this understanding of tradition may help Protestants come to terms with the validity of “tradition” as an important theological category.
PS: Protestants, especially free-church Protestants, who want to know more about tradition and its importance for the church would do well to pick up a copy of D. H. Williams’ Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism, appropriately subtitled “A Primer for Suspicious Protestants.”