Saturday, March 5, 2016

Traditions and the Word of God

 One of the issues that so preoccupy the church in any era is the role that tradition plays in its life and practice. To some, such a thing as oral tradition is on par with the written Word of God as authoritative and determinant. To others, tradition is a good thing, but not necessarily essential to our understanding of what God expects from His people. But I submit that there is a third way which, in my opinion, is the correct one.

There is no doubt that the Bible speaks of tradition in several places. In 1 Corinthians 11:2, Paul commends the Corinthian Christians because they “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Again in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, he exhorts his readers to keep the word he had passed down to them “whether by word of mouth or by letter.” Thus, the role that tradition plays in the church is one that cannot be minimized. The issue, however, is not that tradition is unimportant, but what form that tradition had in Paul’s and the other apostles’ day and what form it has today.

I was listening to a webcast the other day where the host of the program was playing a clip from another show where an individual was addressing tradition in the church. According to this person, the church had passed down traditions by word of mouth before that word had been enscripturated with the obvious implication, in his view, that that is valid for us today as well since it was valid for them then. In other words, since the early disciples passed the word of God to each other in oral form before the New Testament came into existence, that also holds sway for us today. And of course, the scriptures that I have cited above are used as proof texts for the idea that there is more to the faith than what the New Testament explicitly declares.

I believe that anyone who understands the New Testament will agree that having a belief in the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice does not mean that it contains all the answers you’ll ever need for every particular problem. It is self-evident that problems will arise that are not directly addressed in the Scriptures. But we are not saying that we can then appeal to what supposedly is “tradition” to fill in the gaps with so-called authoritative words from the magisterium of the church. The Lord has ordained certain offices within the church, elders and deacons, who are to be the ones appealed to whenever there are issues within the congregation that need to be resolved. Their wisdom and grounding in God’s revelation will be the tools they will use to resolve the problems that attack the flock.

In addition to the above, the appeal to tradition is made in order to justify all kinds of extra biblical practices and doctrines. By the time of the Nicaean Council of the early fourth century, many unbiblical doctrines had begun to creep into the church. Issues such as the superiority of celibacy over marriage, purgatory as well as the role of Mary and her so-called perpetual virginity, were being discussed and subsequently accepted as truth. This was the case even though the Scriptures either do not mention them or, when they do—as in the case of marriage—they are completely contrary to the idea being promoted. It goes without saying, then, that when we appeal to tradition and we place it on the same footing as the Word, we run the risk of deviating into all kinds of spiritual perversions. Without a perfect, complete guide, our steps will inevitably wander all over the place. It's human nature.

But there’s another area in which tradition often holds a strong hold on the church even though we often do not acknowledge it. I refer to the fact that many will follow lock step the teachings of the church of—fill in the blank—simply because that is what they have always been taught. Thus, they are deftly afraid of considering other ideas and explanations for certain passages of Scripture because they go against what they have always been taught. It is important to bear in mind here that we should not be like the ones that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 4 who are “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine.” We can’t believe one thing today and another tomorrow and another the next day and on and on. But it is essential for us to realize that, as human beings, we are subject to failings and as such we should always be willing to examine teachings that are contrary to what we have been taught. Sometimes they will prove to be true. Most often, in my experience, they will prove to be false, but we owe it to ourselves to examine them and give them a fair hearing. (I’m not by this suggesting that we should consider every idea that is out there. Rather, I’m referring to doctrines that have formed part of “Christendom” for centuries and with which we may disagree).

And finally, it is important to remember that the idea that the Bible speaks of tradition does not necessarily mean oral tradition. It falls to the advocates of such an idea to prove that those traditions Paul speaks about, for example, are not contained in another portion of Scripture. It is impossible to so do and very few even attempt to do so. They simply point to the magisterium of the church and, in circular fashion, attempt to prove the point by saying that the magisterium said it and, since the magisterium is infallible, it must be true. The truth is that the Bible is sufficient for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). If a doctrine is not found within its pages then we don’t need it. And if it is found within, then it is that which is theopneustos, God breathed (2 Tim 3:16) and we need nothing further.