Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Tradition" Is Not a Dirty Word

By Dave Armstrong (10-31-06)

Evangelical Protestantism holds, by and large, the view that Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are somehow unalterably opposed to each other and, for all practical purposes, mutually exclusive. This is yet another example of a false dichotomy which Protestantism often (unfortunately) tends to create (e.g., Faith vs. Works, Matter vs. Spirit). The Bible, however, presupposes Tradition as an entity prior to and larger than itself, from which it is derived, not as some sort of "dirty word."

It is one thing to wrongly assert that Catholic Tradition (the beliefs and dogmas which the Church claims to have preserved intact passed down from Christ and the Apostles) is corrupt, excessive and unbiblical. It is quite another to think that the very concept of tradition is contrary to the outlook of the Bible and pure, essential Christianity. This is, broadly speaking, a popular and widespread variant of the distinctive Protestant viewpoint of "Sola Scriptura," or "Scripture Alone," which was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Revolt in the 16th century. It remains the supreme principle of authority, or "rule of faith" for evangelical Protestants today. "Sola Scriptura" by its very nature tends to pit Tradition against the Bible, and it is this unbiblical notion which we will presently examine.

First of all, one might also loosely define Tradition as the authoritative and authentic Christian History of theological doctrines and devotional practices. Christianity, like Judaism before it, is fundamentally grounded in history, in the earth-shattering historical events in the life of Jesus Christ (the Incarnation, Miracles, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, etc.). Eyewitnesses (Lk 1:1-2, Acts 1:1-3, 2 Pet 1:16-18) communicated these true stories to the first Christians, who in turn passed them on to other Christians (under the guidance of the Church's authority) down through the ages. Therefore, Christian tradition, defined as authentic Church history, is unavoidable.

Many Protestants read the accounts of Jesus' conflicts with the Pharisees and get the idea that He was utterly opposed to all tradition whatsoever. This is not true. A close reading of passages such as Matthew 15:3-9 and Mark 7: 8-13 will reveal that He only condemned corrupt traditions of men, not tradition per se. He uses qualifying phrases like "your tradition," "commandments of men," "tradition of men," as opposed to "the commandment of God." St. Paul draws precisely the same contrast in Colossians 2:8: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."


The New Testament explicitly teaches that traditions can be either good (from God) or bad (from men, when against God's true traditions). Corrupt Pharisaic teachings were a bad tradition (many of their legitimate teachings were recognized by Jesus - see, e.g., Matt 23:3). The spoken gospel and the apostolic writings which eventually were formulated as Holy Scripture (authoritatively recognized by the Church in 397 A.D. at the Council of Carthage) were altogether good: the authentic Christian Tradition as revealed by the incarnate God to the Apostles.

The Greek word for "tradition" in the New Testament is "paradosis." It occurs four times in the Bible: in Colossians 2:8, and in the following three passages:

1) 1 Corinthians 11:2: ". . . keep the ordinances, as I delivered {them} to you." (RSV, NRSV, NEB, REB, NKJV, NASB all translate KJV "ordinances" as "tradition{s}").

2) 2 Thessalonians 2:15: ". . . hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle."

3) 2 Thessalonians 3:6: "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us."
Note that St. Paul draws no qualitative distinction between written and oral tradition. There exists no dichotomy in the Apostle's mind which regards oral Christian tradition as bad and undesirable. Rather, this false belief is, ironically, itself an unbiblical "tradition of men."

When the first Christians went out and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ after Pentecost, this was an oral tradition proclaimed orally. Some of it got recorded in the Bible (e.g., in Acts 2) but most did not, and could not (see John 20:30, 21:25). It was primarily this oral Christian tradition which turned the world upside down, not the text of the New Testament (many if not most people couldn't read then anyway). Accordingly, when the phrases "word of God" or "word of the Lord" occur in Acts and the epistles, they almost always refer to oral preaching, not to the written word of the Bible, as Protestants casually assume. A perusal of the context in each case will make this abundantly clear.

Furthermore, the related Greek words "paradidomi" and "paralambano" are usually rendered "delivered" and "received" respectively. St. Paul in particular repeatedly refers to this handing over of the Christian tradition:

1) 1 Corinthians 15:1-3: "Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; (2) By which
also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain. (3) For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures."

2) 1 Thessalonians 2:13: ". . . when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received {it} not {as} the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe."

3) Jude 3: ". . . ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints."

(Cf.Lk 1:1-2, Rom 6:17, 1 Cor 11:23, Gal 1:9,12, 2 Pet 2:21)
Far from distinguishing tradition from the gospel, as evangelicals often contend, the Bible equates tradition with the gospel and other terms such as "word of God," "doctrine," "holy commandment," "faith," and "things believed among us." All are "delivered" and "received":
1) Traditions "delivered" (1 Cor 11:2), "taught by word or epistle" (2 Thes 2:15), and "received" (2 Thes 3:6).

2) The Gospel "preached" and "received" (1 Cor 15:1-2, Gal 1:9,12, 1 Thes 2:9).

3) Word of God "heard" and "received" (Acts 8:14, 1 Thes 2:13).

4) Doctrine "delivered" (Rom 6:17; cf. Acts 2:42).

5) Holy Commandment "delivered" (2 Pet 2:21; cf. Mt 15:3-9, Mk 7:8-13).

6) The Faith "delivered" (Jude 3).

7) "Things believed among us" "delivered" (Lk 1:1-2).
Clearly, all these concepts are synonymous in Scripture, and all are predominantly oral. In St. Paul's writing alone we find four of these expressions used interchangeably. And in just the two Thessalonian epistles, "gospel," "word of God," and "tradition" are regarded as referring to the same thing. Thus, we must unavoidably conclude that "tradition" is not a dirty word in the Bible. Or, if one insists on maintaining that it is, then "gospel" and "word of God" are also bad words! Scripture allows no other conclusion - the exegetical evidence is simply too plain.

To conclude our biblical survey, we again cite St. Paul and his stress on the central importance of oral tradition:
1) 2 Timothy 1:13-14: "Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. (14) That good thing which was
committed unto thee keep by the Holy Ghost which dwelleth in us."

2) 2 Timothy 2:2: "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also."
St. Paul is here urging Timothy not only to "hold fast" his oral teaching "heard of me," but to also pass it on to others. Thus we find a clear picture of some sort of authentic historical continuity of Christian doctrine. This is precisely what the Catholic Church calls Tradition (capital "T"), or, when emphasizing the teaching authority of bishops in the Church, "apostolic succession." The phrase "Deposit of Faith" is also used when describing the original gospel teaching as handed over or delivered to the apostles (see, e.g., Acts 2:42, Jude 3).

The Catholic Church considers itself merely the Custodian or Guardian of this Revelation from God. These doctrines can and do develop and become more clearly understood over time with the help of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26, 16:13-15). The development of doctrine is a complex topic, but suffice it to say that although doctrines develop, they cannot change their essential nature in the least. And doctrines with which Protestants agree developed too. For example, the Trinity was only established in its definitive and lasting form in the 4th century, after much deliberation. It was always believed in some sense, but came to be understood in much greater depth and exactitude by the Church, as a result of the challenges of heretics such as the Arians (similar to Jehovah's Witnesses) who disbelieved in it partially or totally.

Protestants who are perplexed or infuriated by the seeming "corruption," "excessive growth," or "extra-biblical nature" of some distinctive aspects of Catholic Tradition, must read an extraordinary book by John Henry Newman, a brilliant Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism after writing it in 1845. It is called An Essay on the Development of Christian
Doctrine (a misnomer since it runs about 450 pages!) - well worth the time for anyone seeking to fairly examine the Church's philosophy of organic development and its denial of the Protestant tradition of "Sola Scriptura."

The New Testament itself is a written encapsulation of primitive, apostolic Christianity - the authoritative and insired written revelation of God's New Covenant. It is a development, so to speak, of both the Old Testament and early oral Christian preaching and teaching (i.e., Tradition). The process of canonization of the New Testament took over 300 years and involved taking into account human opinions and traditions as to which books were believed to be Scripture. The biblical books were not all immediately obvious to all Christians. Many notable Church Fathers accepted books as part of Scripture which are not now so recognized (e.g., The Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, epistle of Barnabas, 1 Clement). Many others didn't accept certain canonical books until very late (e.g., Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation).

Thus, the Bible cannot be separated and isolated from tradition and a developmental process. Christianity does not take the view of Islam, whose written Revelation, the Q'uran, simply came down from heaven from Allah to Mohammad, without involving human participation in the least. Some extreme, fundamentalist forms of "Sola Scriptura" have a very similar outlook, but these fail the test of Scripture itself, like all the other manifestations of the "Bible Alone" mentality. As we have seen, Scripture does not nullify or anathematize Christian Tradition, which is larger and more all-encompassing than itself - quite the contrary.

In Catholicism, Scripture and Tradition are intrinsically interwoven. They have been described as "twin fonts of the one divine well-spring" (i.e., Revelation), and cannot be separated, any more than can two wings of a bird. A theology which attempts to sunder this organic bond is ultimately logically self-defeating, unbiblical, and divorced from the actual course of early Christian history.


John Chrysostom said...
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John Chrysostom said...

I don't disagree with your argument, but paradosis (or variants, like paradosin, which is what actually appears in your example of Colossians 2:8) appears a lot more than four times in the New Testament-- just look here: http://biblehub.com/greek/3862.htm