Charting a Course for the Church
Part IX: Giving Tradition its Proper Place

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Paul's letter to the Ephesians is impressive for the number of deep, spiritual truths Paul communicates in just six chapters. Among other important truths, this letter contains a discussion of the origin and mission of the Christian church. Paul speaks of the love of a Holy God who reaches out to people everywhere with the goal of blessing them forever. This plan is realized through Jesus Christ, who through the blood of His cross, His resurrection, His reign, and His Spirit gives spiritual life to those who had been dead in trespasses and sins - bringing into being a new people, the church (I Peter 2:5-10). These people, in turn, live life under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, doing the works He planned for them to do:
". . . until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ" (Ephesians 4:13-14).

Paul goes on to present the image of the church as a living body that continues to grow over time - not just in size, but in the knowledge and understanding of the truth. The recognition that God works in His church over time leads us to consider the proper place of tradition in the Christian faith. There is only one rule of faith, one true authority of belief in Christianity, and that is Holy Scripture. Tradition, in and of itself, never deserves to be considered authoritative -- one point at which Protestants strongly disagree with Roman Catholicism.i Seen from this perspective, an appeal to tradition may seem foreign and even counter to the teachings of Scripture. However, some tradition can be a guide to help us understand our faith.ii

The authors of the New Testament were clear that one of the greatest obstacles to the reception of the Gospel was tradition - whether the traditions of the Jews, as indicated in passages such as Mark 7:5-13 and Galatians 1:14 - or the traditions of the Gentiles, as indicated in Colossians 2:8. Nevertheless, Paul speaks more favorably of tradition in I Corinthians 11:2 and I Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6, where the Greek word paradosis refers to that which is "handed down" -- often teachings or customs that are handed down from person to person or from one generation to another. Therefore, paradosis is often accurately translated by the English word "tradition." Vine states that the use of this word emphasizes that the person who is transmitting the paradosis, the tradition, is not the source of what is handed down.iii In this case, the traditions Paul refers to do not have their source in human thought, but in God and His Word. This is the fundamental difference between traditions that have value and traditions that are harmful - questionable traditions do not have their source in God or His Word.

Some of the traditions, the teachings, Paul referred to in I Corinthians and II Thessalonians became part of our New Testament - traditions about Jesus were incorporated into the Gospels and apostolic teachings are found in other books of the New Testament. However, some teachings were passed on personally to the next generation of Christians. We need to distinguish carefully between those traditions that became part of God's Word and those that did not. Those outside God's Word may be helpful, but they are not authoritative. For example, the earliest Christian writings after Scripture are of great interest to Christians today because their authors either knew the apostles first-hand or knew those who knew the apostles. They were, therefore, in a unique position to help us understand our faith. Their writings, however, are not Scripture, and should never be elevated to the same level.

If that is true, why be interested in traditions outside Scripture at all? Where Scripture is clear, we do not need to be. But where there are differences in opinion about what Scripture teaches, or perhaps, how best to apply the teachings of Scripture, it helps to look to Christians of the past. To do so is to humbly recognize that God has worked in other ages as well as our own and that, as Christ's Body in this world, we need the best insights of other Christians - both of those who live with us and those who came before. We also need to be careful. A helpful tradition is not just an established custom. It is not enough to point to some group of Christians in the past and simply do as they did. But some Christian traditions have great value.

As the early church struggled to cope with various challenges to her mission, a number of issues were carefully thought through. Such important issues as the proper authority for faith, God as Trinity, the nature of Christ as both fully God and fully man, the nature of sin, salvation by grace alone through faith, and others were examined with the help of the Spirit of God. The result is not another source of authority, but the best-thinking of the Christian community concerning how to interpret and apply the teachings of Scripture with regard to those issues.

The canon of Scripture - the list of those writings considered to be Divinely inspired - is a tradition. Our Bible consists of sixty-six books, each of which is based upon a document that was believed to carry Divine authority in the Jewish, and later, the Christian communities of faith. However, this collection, as we have it now, did not exist as one, unified collection in New Testament times, but as separate documents, each church usually having some but not all of them. In the first few centuries of Christianity, the challenge of various heresies (Gnosticism, Montanism, Arianism, and so forth) forced Christians to decide which among the many spiritual writings available were canonical and which were not. The first statement listing all 27 books of the New Testament together as canonical Scripture was made in a letter from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in 367 A.D. The first church council to do so was the Council of Hippo in 393 A.D. It is important to understand that in creating the canon, the church did not confer authority upon certain writings, rather it recognized the authority that was always inherent in these documents. In other words, Christians had always recognized that these documents came into existence by Divine inspiration.

The judgment that the sixty-six books we have in our Bible comprise the Holy Scriptures is, therefore, a tradition within the Christian church. The decision itself is not Scripture, but it does flow directly from the Scriptures themselves, representing the careful judgment of Christians of earlier times. Therefore, when people buy Bibles today, we don't give them a choice of which books to mix-and-match - leaving some in, taking out others, and adding, perhaps, some outside the sixty-six that they like better - we ask them to respect the judgment of the Christian community before them. There are a number of traditions that, like the canon of Scripture, deserve to be preserved, even though, as people dedicated to the Word of God, we must be very careful not to give tradition a wrongful place.

Over the centuries, a number of traditions were brought into Christian faith and practice that were not true to the teaching of Scripture and so were detrimental to true faith. Many of these were the subject of protest by the leaders of the Protestant Reformation. But it is important to recognize that the reformers and those who followed them continued to value tradition as a guide to understanding Scripture, and the tendency to do otherwise did not predominate in the Christian community until modern times. Traditional, orthodox Christianity consists not just of the apostolic foundation and the teachings of Holy Scripture, but of those teachings that have been derived from or are both helpful and consistent with the teachings of Scripture, and thus have been accepted by those faithful to Christ in the past, including Protestants.

Without paying attention to sound Christian tradition, Christianity becomes chaotic, open to many, often questionable, influences - the kind Paul described in Ephesians 4:14. This is because if tradition is tossed aside every new generation must re-think every issue thought through in earlier times - which any one generation cannot, of course, give full justice to, leaving that generation open to errors that had been successfully confronted before. In a theological sense true Christian unity flows from a common relationship to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This ties all Christians into one Body with Jesus as the Head of the Body. But in a practical sense, there can be no unity in the Christian community without a common commitment to the Word of God. Such a commitment is informed by the best that Christians who lived before us have to offer us - with faith that God has worked and is working in people other than just ourselves. This leads us to a vigorous rejection of false tradition combined with a devotion to the best traditions in recognition of our unity with Christians who lived before.

If a belief or practice can be shown to have been held by the Christian church through the centuries, with roots that extend to the very earliest time of the church's history, then contemporary Christians should exercise the very greatest of care before discarding that belief or practice, doing so only on the clearest Scriptural grounds. At the same time, any new teaching not clearly supported by the best Christian tradition must be all the more soundly supported by Scripture to be considered valid.

A number of voices have been raised in our day to endorse a return to the proper place of Christian tradition within the church. They see tradition as a means of promoting doctrinal integrity and stability in our times. Of these, Dr. Thomas C. Oden of Drew University has been, perhaps, the strongest and most helpful. Dr. Oden has produced a three-volume systematic theology with copious references to the church fathers as well as to Scripture.iv He has set about the helpful task of making the teachings of the early church fathers more accessible - thereby giving us valuable resources to aid us in the correct understanding of our faith. It is important to understand that Dr. Oden is not sending us away from the teachings of the early apostles. On the contrary, he seeks to strengthen our understanding of their teaching. Oden writes:

What the ancient church teachers least wished for a theology was that it would be "fresh" or "self-expressive" or an embellishment of purely private inspirations, as if these might stand as some "decisive improvement" on the apostolic teaching . . . One of the commonest definitions of heresy in the early church was "that which we have invented" in contrast to "that which we have received."v

While tradition can be very helpful, tradition can also be abused if our approach to the Holy Scriptures themselves is faulty. It seems largely forgotten today that the Protestant Reformation arose as much from opposition to the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture as to the presence of un-Scriptural traditions. The use of allegory, using something in Scripture to represent something else, is sometimes valid, as in Galatians 4:21-31, but we must be very careful when we want to render an allegorical interpretation. This is because the allegorical method enables us to read into the Scriptures things the Scriptures were never intended to say; allowing us to impose our own thoughts upon Scripture and then to maintain that this is what Scripture teaches. A person who does this can frequently find Christians in the past who were also in error and use their words to suggest that tradition supports their faulty interpretation.

The Protestant reformers were largely successful in leading their followers into the rejection of the allegorical method and into the acceptance of methods of interpretation (hermeneutics) that were more sound. In addition, Protestants insisted upon making the Scriptures available to all Christians in a language that they could understand. The newly invented printing press enabled this to happen, just as it had enabled people in Europe to learn of Protestant teachings more rapidly than they ever could have done before. Unfortunately, what the Protestant Reformers meant as a means to educate all Christians about their faith became, for some, reason to believe that they could interpret the Scriptures however they pleased.

The contemporary world might well be called a world of "waves and wind" as Paul describes in Ephesians 4:14. The Christian church in our time is beset by challenges from all sides to virtually all of her teachings. If the church today places the proper value on the thought and practice of earlier Christians, while at the same time rejecting anything not consistent with the teaching of God's Word, she will be far less prone to imaginative and deceitful teachings.


i "Now God's revelation of himself and the deeds he performed are narrated in the Bible, which is the single source of our Christian faith. The so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral is not Wesleyan at all. It ought to be named the Albert Outler quadrilateral, naming as it does the source of our religion as the Bible, reason, tradition, and experience. The latter three are really interpretative tools to help us understand the contents of the Bible. They supply no revelatory material themselves. John Wesley, in the preface to his sermons, said that God gave us a book which provides us with his plan for our salvation. The Bible tells us all we need to know, indeed, can possibly know about how to be saved and win a place in heaven. He, therefore, calls himself a man of one book." Bishop William R. Cannon, Apologia, n.d.

ii "We do not reject all tradition, but rather make judicious use of it in so far as it accords with Scripture and is founded on truth. We should, for instance, treat with respect and study with care the confessions and council pronouncements of the various churches, particularly those of the ancient church and of Reformation days . . . But we do not give any church the right to formulate new doctrine or to make decisions contrary to the teaching of Scripture." Boettner, Lorraine. Roman Catholicism. Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972, p. 76.

iii Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies in the New Testament, Volume III, The Epistles of Paul. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1946, p. 246.

iv Oden, Thomas C. Systematic Theology. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1992, 1994.

v Oden, Thomas C. After Modernity . . . What?: Agenda for Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, pp. 22, 159.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 12, December 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.