When I was a child, I went to Church in an independent bible Church that claimed to be the Church of the New Testament. In other words, we were discarding all the traditions of men that had crept into the Church since the time of the Apostles and were going to live life as the New Testament Church did--straight from the Scriptures (emphasis on the New Testament, please)!
Of course, little did I realize at the time--nor did anyone else, I think--that the early Church had no New Testament written, but only the written Old Testament, as we would call it, and the oral tradition of the Apostles for at least the first 20 years of her existence. Now what?
Tradition, as you’ve guessed, was considered a bad thing, so I don’t know what I would have done had I known of the conundrum. Of course, no one had actually done any historical study, so the way the New Testament Church worshipped, worked, dealt with discipline, etc., seemed to be made up when the need arose in our congregation to know that information.
When I found out much later that the New Testament Church looked a lot like those traditional Churches with their “dead” liturgy and empty prayers; looked a lot like the Jewish synagogues and the Jewish Temple liturgy, I was quite shocked. This made so much more sense than the “make it up as you go” school of liturgy which I had been a part of all the way through college.
So, then, if the Scripture was my authority, and the early Church looked something much different than I had been taught in Church, what had I learned? I had learned that the past, the history of the Church, shapes the Church now--or it ought to. I had rather be doing, living, continuing steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship, not someone else’s.
Thus, we have a need for the authority of tradition. I’m not talking Advent Wreaths and Christmas Carols. I am talking about the need to listen to what the Church has always said about the Scriptures, in particular. There is much more to be talked about, for sure, but let’s just stick there for a moment.
The Church I grew up in had little to no use for anything labeled “tradition.” Yet, if I want to know how to interpret the Apostles writings, who am I to listen to? Do I trust myself? Do I trust the Pope? Do I trust the pastor down the street?
Of course, in contemporary America, this becomes a real dilemma for a lot of people, because everything under the sun is said to be the doctrine of the Son.
I’ve learned that the Fathers of the Church are to be trusted. As a son of a Church that went through and was shaped by the Reformation, I have to own the desire of the English Reformers (and many others, by the way), however poorly they managed to work it out in certain cases. And that desire was to return to the doctrine and practice of the primitive Church. To do so, they returned to the Fathers, and argued their case against the anabaptists, the Roman polemicists and the Puritans.
In today’s world of polemical arguments amongst the Catholic traditions (Eastern, Roman, Anglican), in particular, the Fathers are constantly called in to buttress or make an argument, to defend a practice or doctrine, etc.
In defense of the Anglican view and use of the Fathers, let me again quote Father Arthur Middleton, who says of the Fathers of the Church: "They are not infallible, but are seen as the best-appointed judges since the apostles, and it is not the role of a judge to make laws, ...but to interpret those already made” (Fathers and Anglicans, 229).
We are not looking to the Fathers to be the revealed word of God, but we look to them as the authoritative interpreters of the same. Obviously, many of the Fathers were involved in making canon law, etc., but Middleton is talking of the the Holy Scriptures. The Holy Scriptures are the final authority and that final authority needs an interpreter. This is a happy place to come after so many various authorities asserting themselves, particularly in American Christianity.
Many want to make much more or much less of the Fathers. I leave you with 18th century Anglican divine Daniel Waterland’s thoughts:
We allow no doctrine as necessary, which stands only on Fathers or on tradition, oral or written; we admit none for such, but what is contained in Scripture, and proved by Scripture, rightly interpreted. And we know of no way more safe in necessaries, to preserve the right interpretation, than to take the ancients along with us. We think it is a good method to secure our rule of faith against impostures of all kinds, whether of enthusiasm or false criticism, or conceited reason, or oral tradition, or the assuming dictates of an infallible chair. If we thus preserve the true sense of Scripture, and upon that sense build our faith, we then build upon Scripture only; for the sense of Scripture is Scripture. Suppose a man were to prove his legal title to an estate, he appeals to the laws; the true sense and meaning of the laws must be proved by the best rules of interpretation; but after all it is the law that gives the title, and that only. In like manner, after using all proper means to come at the sense of Scripture (which is Scripture), it is that, and that only which we ground our faith upon, and prove our faith by. We allege not Fathers as grounds, or principles, or foundations of our faith, but as witnesses, and as interpreters and faithful conveyors. (qtd. in Middleton, ibid.)