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Taking seriously our embodiment as finite and as situated within a particular space and time means that we are all inevitably placed somewhere within an unfolding historical and cultural tradition and that thinking we are able to attain a universal and timeless understanding through the exercise of critical reasoning is illusory. We are both shaped by tradition and shapers of tradition in that we construe our tradition in particular ways in order to guide our present and our future.

The quote is from Andrew T. Linclon’s recent book on the virginal conception of Jesus and the incarnation, Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology, pp. 290-91 (and please don’t judge the book by the title).

The point of this quote is something I have carried very close to me over the years and find it utterly compelling. I would even say it drives much of my own thinking and contemplating about God, my faith, and why in the world I do what I do. We honor traditions best when we take seriously the responsibility for shaping them for our time and place rather than preserving them in past iterations out of nostalgia or fear.

But how can you hold to a tradition and also shape it? Isn’t the point of holding to a tradition to, well, hold it rather than shape it?

I understand the point, but think of this: we see tradition shaped throughout the Bible, within the Old Testament and also, in rather dramatic fashion, in how the New Testament shapes and transforms various strands of Old Testament tradition.

Without successive generations shaping their tradition, the tradition dies. I think the Lincoln quote captures that well.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.