Chesterton: “Tradition is the Democracy of the Dead”

IviMPvuPKLJILAHNhJvP4BaIzLPMldrHxqJ_nKENh0sBcBDpSnTFbyTGmuzbcyt9uLchTbc9BORmrHlv5n01REWS8nkYX3BqbAdiBmfJPB7Kqys4bUiUDqxX_fHTz28kkMention the word “tradition” in a group of two or more Christians, and you are likely to hear as many different perspectives as there are people present.  Backlash against a high view of Church tradition can be seen in many (but not all) denominations flowing out of the Protestant Reformation ranging from disdain and distrust to general disinterest and apathy.

Perhaps the most recognizable outworking of our theology of church tradition (or lack thereof) is in the arena of church music.  I say “arena” because interactions about church music are often knock-down, drag-out boxing matches–no holds barred.  Opposing views have been clearly delineated: Contemporary in one corner, Traditional leaning against the ropes in the other.  (Note: these terms are extremely misleading–for not all “contemporary music” is actually contemporary, nor is all “traditional music” actually traditional.)  Many congregations have decided to agree to disagree, always meeting in separate worship services.

A Little Catholicism Never Hurt Anyone.

I recently read G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a book that chronicles his philosophical journey from agnosticism to belief in orthodox Christianity.  Chesterton’s firmly held Catholic convictions belie his opinion on the whole Church tradition debate, but I found his approach to the issue unique and compelling.  In Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”, Chesterton points out the inconsistency of demanding democracy in government but denying tradition in the church:

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead…Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (1)

Chesterton’s point is that the Church is not merely those Christians who happen to be alive today.  The Church is made up God’s children from every generation of mankind from Adam to the present day.  In government, we object to the exclusion of members of society on the basis of race, age, gender, etc.  Why then in the church are we content with discriminating against brothers and sisters on the basis of age?

Chesterton argues that all out rejection of Church tradition is basic discrimination against our brothers and sisters merely on the basis that they have died and we have not.  Life after death is a central tenet of orthodox Christianity.  Denial of tradition is akin to denial that our deceased brothers and sisters actually do still exist and are still members of Christ’s Church.

When we determine what we will believe, what we will sing, or how we will live as Christians without allowing the weighty beliefs of our brothers and sisters who came before us to have due influence, we establish ourselves as that “small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”  The perspectives, interpretations of Scripture, and ways of Christian living found in Church tradition help us to avoid foolish arrogance and youthful parochialism.  Our Christian forebears take on the role of the father in the book of Proverbs: “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching” (Proverbs 4:1-2).

Revelation Song.

The book of Revelation is like one giant worship event.  Every couple of chapters, we return to the scene of all God’s saints and creatures singing forth his praises.  Here is one of those scenes recounted in Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Rev. 7:9-12)

Do you realize that you are going to spend an eternity worshiping God with believers “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…[and generations of history]”?  You will be singing next to Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Wesley, Athanasius, Paul, Peter, Abraham, and David.  Do you think that when the host of God’s people are gathered they are only going to sing worship songs that were written in America between 1998-2014?  Chances are that one of those songs might come around once every few years of eternal worship.  Of the host of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that have been written in the history of Christ’s Church, an infinitesimal amount are contemporary to you.

I’m sure the saints will be willing to sing your favorite worship song every once in a blue moon, but how are you preparing yourself to sing in that vastly diverse multitude of saints spanning centuries, cultures, and languages?  Is your Sunday worship preparing you to worship with believers from generations past?  May we recognize that the hymns and songs preserved from the epochs of Church history give us the unique opportunity to practice singing with our brothers and sisters long before we are reunited with them in the New Jerusalem.

(photo credit)

(1) quote copied from

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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