Frequently the role of Tradition, as understood in the Catholic and Orthodox faiths, is challenged as an authoritative basis for Christian teaching. It is suggested that the rule should be sola scriptura or “the bible is the sole rule of faith.” To understand this issue we need to answer the question “what does the Bible teach about Tradition?”
Before we start we need to eliminate a meaning in English. In English the word "tradition" can have a meaning of "custom". It is traditional to "drive on right side of the road." Certainly every church has customs and as long has they help the presentation of the Gospel they are certainly commendable.
Paul tells us tradition is important:
I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. 1 Cor 11:2
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter. Thes 2:15
If we are not “standing firm and holding the traditions” we are missing the teaching of scripture. But what would we be missing?
The Greek word in the New Testament for tradition is not only a noun "paradosis" as in English, but also has a verb form "paradidonai" "which is usually translated with terms like "received" or "delivered" (but received and delivered do not always translate "paradidonai"). This keeps a simple check in a search engine from seeing the full meaning of the term. The NASB captures the idea when it sometimes translates tradition as teaching. Tradition is sometimes explained as transmitted or transmission. A tradition is a teaching that is transmitted.
(References: "Dictionary of the Bible" John L. McKenzie S. J., Collier Books. "Dictionary of Biblical Theology", Xavier Leon Dufour S.J., St Paul Books and Media.)
To understand Tradition we should begin with Jesus Christ. Jesus taught There is only one recorded instance of his writing and we don’t know what he wrote (John 8.) The Apostles and disciples taught what Jesus taught and what they had seen with their own eyes. This public Revelation is closed with the death of the Apostle John. The first Christians transmitted this teaching to the next generation. Every generation has faithfully transmitted the teaching to the next.
This transmission of the teaching of Jesus left “footprints” if you will. In every generation (actually starting before the death of the Apostle John 96 AD +-) we have records of what was taught. We can see that the teaching today is the same as the teaching in the 1st Century and at every time in between. If some one is trying to sneak in some novelty it’s difference from what had gone before will standout. If it is not part of the teaching the Church received from the Apostles we should be able to assign name, place, and date to it.
This does not mean the Tradition is a dead explanation. In each place generation the teaching is transmitted so it can be understood by those who receive it. Or since “faith comes by hearing,” the tradition is what is heard. Without changing the teaching of Jesus we come to have a better understanding of the Tradition. This happens especially in response to heresies when it becomes necessary to clarify the true understanding.
The Bible is at the center of the Tradition. The testimony of the Apostles and their associates is recorded in the Bible under the inerrant inspiration of the Holy Sprit. The entirety of the revelation is contained in the explicitly or implicitly in Scripture. This provides the basic facts on which the teaching (Tradition) is based.
Thus we can see that it is not a question of Scripture or Tradition, or even Scripture and Tradition. Scripture is a part of the Tradition. Actually the most important part. Scripture is received and handed on in each generation.
A very good example is 1 Cor 15:3 "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received . . . " What is this tradition (teaching) that Paul received and delivered (transmitted)?
"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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles." 1 Cor 15:3-7.
Obviously when some one says they do not recognize tradition, I'm sure they are using excessively overstated hyperbole to make a point; they are not denying this tradition that Paul received and delivered to the Corinthians.
Of course this tradition was not just delivered to the Corinthians, but all the Apostles and disciples delivered the same tradition wherever they preached.
This tradition points out that Jesus rose from the dead. Some modern "experts" are trying to say this means "spiritually rose" or "rose in their hearts" or any thing except He bodily rose. How do we know the scripture means bodily rose? Because that tradition (teaching) that he bodily rose has been received by every generation since then and delivered (transmitted) to the next. In every generation there are commentaries, sermons, hymns, prayers, etc that make it clear this tradition is the true teaching. If we go by "sola scriptura" we would ignore this evidence, line up our verses and they would line up theirs (often the same verses) and say “my opinion of what the text means is better than yours.” We would have no means settling the question except who can yell the loudest, but decibel level is not a proof of truth. If we recognize the authority of Tradition we know that Jesus rose bodily from the dead because this is the constant Tradition (teaching) for 2000 years.
What about "Traditions of Men"?
Jesus, as does Paul, rightly denounces the Pharisees who added their own made up traditions to the Traditions (teachings) of Moses and the Prophets
Jesus: So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God Matt 15:6
Paul: See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. Col 2:8
If the modern "Experts" keep misleading long enough, what they are delivering will be received in some places and a "tradition of men" that certainly "makes void the very word of God" will have been created. This is why theological liberals consistently deny or devalue tradition. Tradition makes it impossible to introduce new teachings that deny what was received from the Apostles.
By looking at the whole of Tradition, both scripture and the teaching that has accompanied it, we make sure that we have a sound interpretation and not a personal opinion. After all, having been influenced by the culture of the time and place I was raised, I could easily unintentionally read something in to scripture that the Holy Sprit never intended. But I also look to see what was received in every generation in many different cultures, I can be very confident that I believe what Jesus and the Apostles taught. If I am “standing firm and holding the traditions” (Thes 2:15) that have been held in every generation I am holding the traditions that Paul taught the Corinthians.
An example. The Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses have delivered some new traditions (teachings) that in addition to mangling the text were clearly invented by known men at known dates and places. They specifily deny teachings that have been held for 2000 years. Thus these are traditions of men. They are “traditions of men that make void the very word of God.” I think it is interesting that I have never heard a Evangelical point this out. In addition to pointing out the numerous Biblical inconsistencies, I think it is pointing out that they are “traditions of men” would be a convincing argument in their congregations.
Another example. The tradition (teaching) of "Sola Scriptura" was delivered to the church at the Diet of Worms in April 1521 by Friar Martin Luther; about 1400 years after the death of the Apostle John. It has been received and delivered in the Protestant Churches ever since. There is no mention of this tradition before then. "Sola Scripura" is a human tradition, not part of the Traditions Paul delivered to the Thessolians by "word of mouth or by letter", or any of the Apostles delivered to the Church.
If we start with "the Bible is the sole rule of faith" we have to realize that Paul's injunction "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter." (2 Thes 2:15) is a biblical directive to also use Tradition as a rule of faith. The plain words of scripture contradict the basic definition of “sola scriptura”, "the Bible is the sole rule of faith.
One might say that though a tradition “Sola Scriptura” could be considered useful if we do not elevate it to the point of doctrine. An apologetic or teaching device.
Since “Sola Scriptura” teaches us to reject traditions of men, but as a tradition of men itself, it is hopelessly contradictory.
See Sola Scriptura and the Authority of the Chuch
4 months ago