With anticipation, and not a little trepidation, I am wading into a subject that I believe cannot be over-emphasized as to its significance regarding the Church, past, present and future. I would venture to say that the two most influential forces ever at work in her long history, and those largely responsible for who she is today, are Scripture and Tradition.
If only the marriage of these two were a match fully made in heaven, what an incomparable force they would be for God in the earth! The reality is, however, that they are a heaven-and-earth mixture, an unholy union of divine and human ways, a complex matrix of good, bad and ugly. If ever a love/hate relationship existed, it is here between these two obstinate “soul mates”. Theirs is a marriage marked by the sweetest of affections and the most ardent of conflict. Theirs is a relationship of immense loyalty and honor and also of constant warring for dominance and final authority. As friends they are close; as enemies they are closer. This is the complex and confusing nature of the marriage of Tradition and Scripture as they have danced their way through the pages of Church history.
In the wisdom and purpose of God, the preeminent of these two is Scripture. This is the one ordained to lead in the “dance”, while Tradition is to follow. Scripture has an authority backed by Heaven itself. Tradition has an authority only when backed by Scripture. Its influence, however, is self-promoting and self-propagating and often takes on a life of its own. When it does, it challenges Scripture’s authority and has the power to supplant it in the lives of those who come under its influence. As such, it has become one of Scripture’s most seductive and seditious rivals.
The Church is the marriage bed and the battleground of these two powerful entities…and will be to the end.
In this series, I will seek to peel back the layers of the interplay between these two eminent forces with a primary focus on the nature, place and power of Tradition in the Church. Unless we clearly discern its proper and powerful role, and also, in contrast, its often deceptive and dominating influence, we will never be free to become what God desires us to be as His people. An honest and informed look at the Church today clearly shows that we have all but failed in our discernment and judgment on both sides of this matter.
Before we go further, we will need to get a basic definition of the word “tradition”. We will then look at three basic types of “traditions” as they stand in relation to Scripture.
The Greek Word translated “tradition” in the New Testament is “paradosis” which generally means, “giving up, giving over”, and more specifically when translated as “tradition”, “a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing, i.e. tradition by instruction, narrative, precept, etc..” (Strong’s Greek Dictionary)
English dictionary definitions for the word, “tradition” include: “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom)” (Merriam-Webster online edition) and, “the handing down of patterns of behavior, practices, and beliefs that are valued by a culture.” (Bing Dictionary)
“Tradition”, therefore, is that which is passed on or handed down especially from one generation to the next by written or oral instruction, individual or collective example and/or spiritual or cultural influence. These “traditions” can encompass teachings, beliefs, values, experiences, behaviors, customs and practices.
As we consider this matter of “tradition”, it is important to understand that in and of itself, it is a spiritually and morally neutral force. It is neither inherently good nor bad, right nor wrong, positive nor negative. It is only the content and means of its transmission that determine a specific tradition’s spiritual and moral character. It is important, therefore, as we look into this subject to maintain a balanced view of its full range of expression and effect. The Church falls into error when it is either too heavily weighted on the positive side of tradition, or, conversely, on the negative side. Truth apprehends both aspects in balance.
We will now consider three basic categories of “traditions” as they stand in relation to Scripture.
Scripture itself speaks positively in regards to “tradition” in innumerable places either directly or by inference.
In the New Testament, for instance, Paul speaks directly of the importance of “tradition” in regards to the Church in a number of his epistles.
He said to the Corinthian believers, “Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you.” (1 Cor. 11:1-2)
And similarly to the Thessalonian church, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.” (2 Thess. 2:15)
And, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:6)
Furthermore, there are also innumerable instances in Scripture where the faithful are exhorted to hand on and hand down the truths, experiences and practices of the faith.
Scripture, therefore, fully endorses the handing down of those traditions that are wholly in accord with its true teachings, practices and examples. This is the proper and right place for “tradition” in relation to Scripture and the Church. In fact, this is the primary way that the faith is transferred from one to another, and from one generation to another. The Church is exhorted to employ all manner of godly living, example, speaking, writing, singing, serving, sacrament, custom, culture, creative arts and the like to propagate and pass on the faith. All of these are to be in accord with the whole counsel of Scripture, rightly divided, and carried out in and through the immediate working of the Holy Spirit.
This handing on of the faith includes not only the external matters of Scriptural doctrine and practice, but also, and more importantly, the internal, spiritual matters of Scripture such as intimacy with God, the spiritual formation of Christ within His people, and the manifold working of the Holy Spirit. True Biblical tradition is a spiritual matter first and foremost, and not merely a “soulish” or cultural one. In fact, apart from the working of the Spirit, even though a tradition may have the outward form of being “Biblical”, it is in reality “UN-Biblical, for the Bible condemns all that is carried out in the power of the flesh.
“Biblical traditions”, therefore, are not to be judged by mere outward appearances, but also by their inward, spiritual character being, “of”, “through” and “to” God. (Rom. 11:36)
This passing on of “Biblical tradition”, then, is essential to the calling and mission of the Church as it is carried out in and by the Holy Spirit.
The second category of “traditions” are what may be called “non-Biblical traditions”. The prefix “non-“ means “not” and is used primarily to imply, “…the absence of something (rather than the opposite or reverse of it, as often expressed by un-.” (Dictionary.com)
Non-Biblical traditions are those that stand outside of the scope of Scripture and are neither in violation of, nor an affirmation of the teachings and examples of the Bible. Whereas “Biblical traditions” are positive in regards to both the content and intent of Scripture, “Non-Biblical traditions” are neutral in regards to both the letter and the spirit of the Word.
Some examples of this type of tradition found in our society might be, for instance, driving on the right-hand (or left-hand) side of the road, giving a standing ovation for a rousing performance, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, etc… The Bible neither commends nor condemns these practices and followers of Christ are free to practice them or not according to their own interests and desires as long as they do not cause harm, undue offense or another to stumble in their faith (i.e. in the spirit of Romans 14.)
The Scriptures are comprehensive as to the fundamental principles and issues of life, however. So when we come to those traditions which are not clearly addressed by the words and witness of Scripture, we need to proceed with caution, especially when they are embraced and practiced within the Church. There may be underlying motives, principles or effects that come into play, as well as factors that are dependent on culture or the individuals affected by them, that put them in another category. (For instance, driving on the right-hand side of the road in the USA is not a problem, but in the UK ???! 😦 ) If “Biblical traditions” represent a “green light”, this category represents a “yellow light.”
We now come to the third major category of “traditions”, the “red light” category…
The prefix “un-“ also means “not”, but in the stronger sense of “giving negative or opposite force…” (Dictionary.com) Because of this, the prefix “anti-“ (meaning “against”, “opposite of”… ) may also be used to describe this type of tradition. “Un-Biblical / anti-Biblical traditions”, therefore, are those which negate, oppose or in some way stand against the teaching and testimony of Scripture.
This category contains many blatant teachings and practices which are clearly denounced by the Word of God and are generally recognized as “un-Biblical” by the Church. More importantly, it also contains many subtle and deceptive beliefs and practices which may appear to be “non-Biblical” or even “Biblical” in nature… but in reality are not. Traditions that comprise this more deceptive group regularly go unrecognized and undiscerned for what they truly are. As such, they are much more readily accepted and incorporated into the fabric of Christian faith, practice and culture than the more obvious ones. Furthermore, because God often works where these are present inspite of them, rather than because of them, they can appear to have God’s endorsement and blessing upon them. With apparent “Divine backing”, these can be the most deceptive and dangerous traditions in the Church of all, and the most difficult to expose and uproot.
These are the type of traditions that Jesus was constantly coming up against and confronting in the religious system of His day. In fact, it seems that He wasted no opportunity to break these traditions right under the noses of those who revered them the most, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Whether it was picking grain…, healing…, or telling a man to pick up his bed and walk…on the Sabbath, touching, and allowing Himself to be touched by those who were “unclean” (the dead, a bleeding woman, lepers), allowing a prostitute to touch Him, as well as anoint and kiss His feet, conversing with and teaching a Samaritan woman, eating with “publicans and sinners”, or eating with “unwashed hands”, Jesus seemed to constantly be waging war on the man-made, “un-Biblical”, “traditions of the elders.”
In His incisive discourse with the Pharisees concerning His disciples not eating with ceremonially clean hands, He reveals the true nature of these human, “anti-Biblical” traditions.
“The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)
So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”
And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
(Mark 7:1-13 NIV – emphasis added)
The Greek word rendered “nullify” in the last verse is “akuroō” and means, “to render void, deprive of force or authority, to invalidate.” It is therefore translated by some versions, “of no effect” (KJV), “making void” (ESV), “setting aside” (YLT) and “invalidating”(NAS).
Here we see the powerfully seductive and seditious nature of “un-Biblical” traditions. They have the ability to creep into the hearts and minds of even those most committed to the Scriptures, and, through their blinding presence and binding power, simply “render void” the commandments of God. When we consider just what it is that they are able to “nullify”, the very words and commandments of God, we know we are in the presence of a truly uncanny enemy. Anything that can make null and void that which God says “…shall not return to me void” (Isa. 55:11) is a force to be reckoned with.
Not only was and is this a problem in Judaism, the same propensity to create and pass on man-made “un-Biblical” traditions is likewise rampant in Christianity, and it has had two-thousand years to become fully entrenched. The problem has not gone away, in fact, it has intensified and spread from one nation…to every nation.
By taking even a brief look at these three categories of traditions, we can see how simultaneously complimentary, indifferent and conflicted this indissoluble union is between Tradition and Scripture. With the vast and complex range of dynamics at work between them, it is clear that razor-sharp discernment and plumb line judgment are absolutely necessary for us to walk in the full wisdom and will of God concerning them.
We, likewise, cannot turn a blind eye to the complex matrix they have woven and pretend it either doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter or is beyond our ability to respond to in a spiritually and Biblically incisive way. Both the powers of Heaven and the powers of Hell know what is bound up with this matter. This is arguably the crucial battle line in the war over the Church, and the Enemy would love have us lay down our arms and become spiritual pacifists in this regard. That’s not what Jesus did, and neither should we.
As we engage in this war, as in any war, two essential areas of knowledge are essential: First, we must know who our allies are. Second, we must know our enemy. In this spiritual war, “Tradition” is BOTH!
In the next post, we will look further into the nature of this “ally/enemy” and search out exactly why it is so powerful and compelling in the hearts of men, both for God and also for the adversary.