Many argue that the Bible should be the Christian’s only theological resource and that any other position is an attack on the authority of Scripture, in which we have all the divine revelation we need. Should we or shouldn’t we make room for church tradition?
The question is very much relevant at present, as many aspersions are being brought against the views the church has held for generations, especially in these times when liberal ideas are taking preponderance in many minds. In answer to the question, there are a few things that we need to assert. Firstly, the sufficiency of the Scriptures; secondly, the meaning of traditions; thirdly, the place both traditions and the Scriptures demand.
The Scripture, aka the Bible, is sufficient for our life and godliness. Notice a couple of Scripture portions that affirm this truth.
Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”. Peter further attests this in 2 Peter 1:3, where he says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence…” These provisions include the provision of the Scripture too. The Lord encouraged the people to “search the Scriptures” (John 5:39).
There are many other Scriptural passages that claim sufficiency of the Word in itself. If it is sufficient, the natural deduction is that there is no need to add anything to it — tradition, philosophy or anything else.
If Scripture is sufficient, the natural deduction is that there is no need to add anything to it
The term ‘tradition’ renders a Greek word that signifies “instruction that has been handed down”. There may be good traditions as well as bad ones.
For example, the apostles handed down traditions. Those were their oral teachings. We may call them sacred or apostolic traditions. They consist of the teachings that the apostles passed on orally. These teachings largely, perhaps entirely, overlap with those contained in the Scripture, but the mode of their transmission is different (1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 3:6).
But there are traditions that are bad in the sense that they are contrary to the written word of God. They are hurtful human traditions that are condemned by the Lord and His apostles (Matthew 15:3; Colossians 2:8). This may include legends or mythological accounts, transitory customs or practices which may change, as circumstances warrant, such as styles of priestly dress, particular forms of devotion to saints, or even liturgical rubrics. These should be an anathema to a Christian worth his salt.
With regard to the relevance of traditions in the life and practice of a Christian, we know that Jesus rebuked the Jews for their wrong handling of traditions in Matthew 15:3. “Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” He asked. They had, by their interpretations of the commandments, opened ways for people to evade their duties. They did this to many of the commandments of the Law. The Rabbis loosened the application of many but, at the same time, tightened the practice of others. Such ‘traditions’ become “burdens” (Matthew 23:4), unnecessarily levied upon people, robbing them of legitimate freedom in serving Christ.
Paul warns believers about the traditions that can rob them of their liberty in Christ. He said: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings?” (Colossians 2:20-22). Christians are dead to such traditions that contradict the Scripture. If we do not keep clear from such traditions which vie for acceptance in the lives of believers, they become common practices, and are even accepted as the voice of God.
Bad traditions should be anathema to a Christian worth his salt
At the same time, Paul instructed the believers at Thessalonica to adhere to the right traditions. He said, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). He had taught the believers in writing and also in oral teaching. Here, he gives equal importance to both of these. Both being from God, through Paul, were not contradictory. These were what he taught them orally. As long as it was not contradictory to the written scripture, they were to be accepted just as the written Scriptures were accepted.
As far as the written Scriptures are concerned which are inspired and handed down to the generations none can annul it (Galatians 1:7, 8). When there is conflict between the tradition and the Scriptures, adherence to the Scripture is called forth. The Bible is the touchstone that validates the tradition. The slogan of the Reformers, ‘Sola Scriptura’, must be held forth over all.
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