3: “Tradition”

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ,”Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?” Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!  – Tevye

Years ago, I brought a friend to a Baptist church. I had been talking to this friend for a while about my faith, the best way I knew how as a high school student. Two years older than I, my friend attended a local Jesuit college. He also had a nominal Roman Catholic background.

One distinction I made sure to press during our religious conversations was the emptiness of traditions. I wasn’t slamming empty traditions; I was slamming traditions in general. In my mind traditions were contrived, manufactured, man-made attempts to earn favor with God while true Christianity was a personal faith in Jesus Christ. I thought that everything I believed came from the plain teaching of scripture and nothing else. Even the very practices and methods used in my faith were authentically biblical, not traditional.

My friend told one of his professors he went to a Baptist church for the first time. He told me the conversation went something like this:

“I attended a Baptist church on Sunday”

“Did they say they have no traditions?”


“Did they ask you, as a visitor, to fill out a card and drop it in the plate?”

“Yes! How did you know?”

Yes, Baptists have traditions. Evangelicals at large have traditions. We all do. To deny such a thing is to deny reality.

I think Dave Hunt represents many modern evangelicals when he told James White he “has no traditions.” D.H. Williams, church historian and Baptist pastor, remarks of a time when he expressed interest in studying the traditions of the early church. A deacon at his first pastorate informed him that such an endeavor “is something Catholics and Episcopalians do, but true Christians need only uphold the complete authority of the Bible and the empowering of the Holy Spirit in a personal way.” (Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism) How often we are confronted with a contemporary Christianity that proclaims, “No creed but Christ,” “Jesus only,” or “Bible only.” Certainly, these are noble expressions if used properly. But to say that the Bible is our ultimate authority or that Christ is the center of all we do and yet traditions cannot be a part of our lives of faith, is to hold to a false dichotomy. Faithfulness to the solas of the Reformation and faithfulness to the traditions of historic Christianity are not mutually exclusive; in fact, the better we understand the importance of tradition, the better Protestants we can be.

Tradition is defined in Vine’s as “a handing down or on.” It really is that simple. We living in the year of our Lord 2012 have been handed down traditions from early times and we should treat those things with reverence. Not all traditions are equal. Not all traditions are authoritative. Not all traditions are worth keeping. Some traditions work better in different contexts. Yet, one thing remains clear: traditions are not inherently wrong.

The contemporary resistance to tradition is often justified with a few passages from the Bible that portray tradition in a negative light:

1. Jesus rebuke of the vain traditions of the Pharisees:

He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?
(Matthew 15:3)

So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
(Matthew 15:6-9)

2. The traditions Paul followed (as a Pharisee himself) that led him to persecute the Church:

And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:14)

3. Traditions of men that take Christians away from Christ:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

Unfortunately, we tend to dichotomize. I’m quickly realizing that many words I write about on this blog are held captive in false dichotomies, from which I am trying to redeem them. Tradition is one such word. No where in the above verses is it suggested that all tradition is bad. The idea that Christianity is either traditional or non-traditional is a false dilemma not manifested anywhere in the scriptures.

What do we learn from these verses about tradition?

Traditions are harmful if they make void the word of God.

Traditions are harmful if they take Christians captive or away from Christ.

Traditions are harmful if they lead people against the Church.

But what else does the scripture say? The Bible also portrays traditions in a positive light:

1 Corinthians 11:2 Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV)

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
(1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ESV)

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 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV)

In the New Testament, heresy abounded much like it does today. To protect the purity of the nascent church, the apostles made sure that the their message, the apostolic faith, was not only kept but verified as the one true faith once for all delivered. That’s why Paul stresses that he has received these things; they are not of his own imagination.

Traditions help connect us to our heritage as Christians. They instill a sense of community with those in our local congregations as well as in the church universal. They provide a link to the historic church and remind us that we did not get here ourselves. As Jaroslav Pelikan said, ‘Tradition is the living faith of those now dead.”

Pelikan also said, however, that “Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” This is the kind of thing we should avoid. An unhealthy allegiance to tradition at the expense of truth could be destructive to genuine faith. Having traditions just for the sake of traditions is an empty pursuit. But while we should shun traditionalism, let us not forget the importance of tradition!

In the book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura,  Keith A. Mathison uses the framework of Reformation scholar Heiko Oberman to present historical paradigms of tradition:

1. Tradition I: Argued by Mathison to be the view of the early church and of the Reformers, Tradition I holds the scriptures as the ultimate authority, but affirms the necessity of interpreting the scriptures within the community of the Church and according to the regula fide (rule of faith). In other words, tradition is necessary, but subject to scripture.

2. Tradition II: Beginning in the fourth century and continuing through the Middle Ages, Tradition II placed church tradition on par with the scriptures, creating a “two-source” theory of authority. Tradition II became dogma at the Council of Trent.

3. Tradition III:  Tradition II gave way to Tradition III in more modern times in the Roman Catholic Church, in which the magisterium is seen as the real source of revelation and authority. Though it may appeal to tradition and to scripture, the magisterium of the church has the final say, and this concept, Mathison argues, is held by most Roman Catholic apologists today.

4. Tradition 0: The paradigm I believe this post addresses is what Mathison calls Tradition 0, which exemplifies the relationship many contemporary evangelicals and fundamentalists have with the concept of tradition. Tradition 0 takes the classical doctrine of sola scriptura and replaces it with “solo” scriptura. In this mindset, tradition is seen as a threat to biblical orthodoxy. Councils, creeds, and traditions are merely footnotes in history, and have no bearing on Christians today. The only thing a Christian adhering to Tradition 0 needs is himself and his Bible.

I have no doubt that Tradition 0 pervades the church today and that it continually feeds our tendencies to be ruggedly individualistic. In an age where so many are resistant to the communion of saints in their own local churches, how could we expect to identify with the fellowship of traditions that have been handed to us from generations gone by?

We need to redeem the traditions. It’s time for evangelicals to wake up and realize that while “no creed but Christ” and “Jesus only” make intriguing slogans, we will continually be sifted and prone to wander from orthodoxy if we do not anchor our faith in the legacy of the church of God. Traditions help tie us to that legacy. So whether it’s meeting on Sundays, celebrating holidays, having liturgies, observing calendars, singing hymns, or any other methodologies of worship and faith that are part of a legacy of tradition, remember to treasure those things that have been handed down to us, and guard them. But don’t take it from me. Take a look at the scripture:

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)


3 Comments on “3: “Tradition””

  1. Dan says:

    The visitor card story had me rolling!

    Another sound post. I can tell that you put a lot into these and I appreciate it. So true that there is much to redeem in tradition.

  2. Great post brother, thanks for redeeming that word! There is one criticism of tradition that you did not mention – that which comes from the charismatic church – namely that tradition hinders the operation of the Holy Spirit. Not surprisingly, similar to the Baptist church, charismatic churches have their own traditions as well. For example, under the covering of ‘giving room for the Holy Spirit,’ they will set time aside in every service of ‘free worship,’ or ‘worship in tongues.’ What they fail to realize is that this is as much a tradition. As a former charismatic, I was always surprised by how the Holy Spirit would show up and operate at exactly the same time in the service order every week.

    Anyway I love your conclusion:

    It’s time for evangelicals to wake up and realize that while “no creed but Christ” and “Jesus only” make intriguing slogans, we will continually be sifted and prone to wander from orthodoxy if we do not anchor our faith in the legacy of the church of God. Traditions help tie us to that legacy.

    The only exception I would take is to some of the examples you give of such ‘traditions.’ While certainly meeting on Sundays and singing hymns are traditions based in Scripture and thus are regulative to our worship, we want to be careful that we do not carry on traditions that are not based in Scripture. As church leaders it is our responsibility to not require our parishioners to participate in any tradition that might violate their conscience (or course this is not always possible for all people, but if we base what we do on the positive commands and examples of Scripture, we are on safe ground at least). Of course every church has a liturgy that hopefully has been well thought out and established on Scripture; however we do not find, either by example or precept in Scripture, things such as ‘celebrating holidays’ and ‘observing calendars.’ Now while I’m not suggesting that there can be no freedom in this area – say to preach a ‘Father’s Day sermon’ on Father’s Day (which seems to have become an evangelical tradition), neither do I think we should be bound to earthly calendars – I would classify such, as a traditions that could override the Word of God and work of the Holy Spirit in His church. I would extend this to the celebration of more ‘Holy days’ whether they be man-made such as Christmas, or based on a Biblical calendar, such as Easter or Passover. While I’d agree that we have freedom to celebrate these (in a manner in keeping with Scripture), I would say that being bound to or required to celebrate them just because they are on a traditional church calendar is an unhealthy tradition for the church to follow. I say this not based on a parallel charismatic argument that they ‘work against the Spirit,’ for indeed the Holy Spirit may work mightily within a church calendar or in a Father’s Day or Christmas service — but I say this, so that before we simply carry on a tradition, we give serious consideration to what that traditions might submit God’s people to in worship. In short, our traditions must be regulated by Scripture.

    I realize this is beyond the scope of this blog, but I think it is somewhat related and bears some consideration in light of the subject matter.

    • Yes, I agree. I think that last paragraph didn’t convey accurately my complete thoughts on the subject. What I’m more concerned with saying in this regard is that holidays, calendars and the like are not evil in and of themselves. They may have value, even if not scriptural, if not just for the reason that they carry on a legacy of God’s people (and it is evident that God is interested in having us know our history through the scriptures). But I do think that we should hold to Tradition I, that is, those traditions ought to be subject to scripture ultimately.

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