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Tradition

By H. A. (Buster) Dobbs


religion, articles, christianity

To brand a teaching as tradition or a teacher as a traditionalist is regarded by some as the utmost put-down. A restudy of the subject is necessary to get the truth on the question in focus. The nomenclature of some brothers leaves the impression that tradition is evil and non-tradition is good.

Tradition, like many words, can be used in either an honorable or harsh sense. Decency requires the user of a word to make clear the way in which he employs it. Otherwise, communication becomes confusion. The unfair way in which this word is used by some requires a restatement of the meaning of the word and the various ways in which it is used in the Bible and in Catholic and Reformation conventions.

Vine says the word means "a handing down" and is akin to commit, deliver, give, and recommend. So, the naked word is benign. The framework in which the word tradition is used determines its character for good or for ill.

In the New Testament the word is used for instructions given, whether spoken or written. "So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours" (2 Thess. 2:15). It is also used of vocal teaching passed from generation to generation. The Pharisees condemned the disciples of Jesus for not keeping "the tradition of the elders" (Matt. 15:2). The Lord defended his followers and charged the Pharisees with transgressing "the commandment of God because of your tradition" (Matt. 15:3). Before his conversion to Christ, Paul says that he was "exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal. 1:14). He means, of course, the text of the law and the interpretation of the rabbis - the written and oral traditions of the Jews.

In the earliest days of the church the saints were edified by unwritten tradition. The God-breathed revelation (tradition) was first spoken, and later it was written. The unwritten, inspired words were confirmed by signs and wonders and, in the absence of an apostle, protected by the requirement that prophets must work in agreement with discerners of truth, interpreters, and miracle workers (1 Cor. 12:12-30; 14:26-34). This provision would require collusion by several for the church to be misled into error and wrongdoing. This did not stop gainsayers from perverting the gospel, but they were without sanction (Gal. 1:6-8).

The saved were cautioned to be on the lookout for false teachers (I John 4:1). False prophets are not few but many. Heretics often gain a considerable following to the discredit of truth (2 Pet. 2:1-2). Still, the inspired tradition identifies error and makes truth understandable (John 8:32).

In the course of time, the apostolic tradition was committed to writing. By the time the last authorized agent of revelation died, the books of the New Testament had been gathered and approved. Careful, scholarly, continual examination and review provide unquestionable confidence that good English versions of the Bible give us the very Word of very God.

We no longer have inspired, verbal tradition, but we do have verbally-inspired and inerrant written tradition. God's Word is eternal. It never dies. Heaven's wisdom is available to all generations, and all will be confronted by it at the last judgment.

Peter wrote to first-century disciples and for the benefit of saints of all ages:

That ye should remember the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and the commandments of the Lord and Savior through your apostles (2 Pet. 3:2).
We have this word of prophecy made more sure ... For no prophecy ever came by the will of man: but men spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19, 21).
But the word of the Lord abideth for ever. And this is the word of good tidings which was preached unto you (I Pet. 1:25).

The wise insist upon being guided by the written word and will receive nothing as of divine authority unless found in the Bible. That seems clear cut but has been muddled by Roman Catholic meddling and Reformation bungling.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) is regarded from "a doctrinal and disciplinary" standpoint as the most important council in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. The major change effected by this council was to coordinate Roman Catholic Church tradition with sacred Scripture. Delegates also reaffirmed the authority of the Apocrypha books, justification by faith and good works as opposed to the Protestant position of salvation by faith only, the seven sacraments, celibacy for the priests, the sin of divorce, purgatory, invocation of saints, and the worship of relics.

The council declared that "the office of tradition is to convey a knowledge of doctrines, precepts, and institutions not contained in the Scriptures." This established what was later called "the living voice of the living church," and opened the door to progressive revelation. Or, as stated by Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century, "Whatever the Church declares to be a part of revelation committed to her, is to be received as of divine authority, at the peril of salvation."

The Protestant and Anglican Reformers (Luther and Calvin, Latimer and Cranmer) denied the absolute authority of the Bishop of Rome and urged following the Scriptures alone. In time this came to mean the consensus of Reformation Churches. Certain, fixed doctrines are regarded as the irreducible minimum for professing Christians, and all else is regarded as subordinate and unnecessary. The essential, basic teaching of salvation according to this incorrect view is: (1) unconditional election and reprobation; (2) hereditary total depravity, rendering the sinner entirely helpless to secure salvation apart from direct, divine intervention; (3) immediate and personal action of the Holy Ghost, sometimes called "enabling grace"; (4) salvation at the point of faith before and without works of obedience; and (5) observance of the two sacraments of the church - the Lord's Supper and baptism.

This involves accepting "the doctrines of the Trinity; of the divinity and incarnation of the eternal Son of God; of the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit; of the apostasy and sinfulness of the human race; the doctrines of the expiation of sin through the death of Christ and of salvation through his merits; of regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Ghost; of the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and of life everlasting."

A key teaching of the Reformation is that the Holy Spirit comes without agency or medium into the life of the helpless sinner enabling him suddenly to believe to the saving of his soul. This is what witnessing is all about in denominational circles. The claim is that the Holy Ghost falls upon the defenseless sinner and imparts to him the germ of spiritual life. This new life bestows an inner glow that becomes proof of pardon and acceptability with God. Under this view, Christianity is not a form of doctrine objectively revealed in Scriptures. It is not knowledge or a systematic exhibition of what the Bible teaches. It is the interpretation of this inner life. It is based not upon truth but upon feeling, not upon testimony but upon emotion.

When our brothers tell us that there is a core gospel that all must believe, and the rest is peripheral and not essential, that we need to have an encounter with God - an intimate confrontation with deity, that we need to give personal testimony of the presence of God in our own life apart from the biblical text, that our heartthrobs are sure evidence of our justification with God, they are teaching Protestant tradition.

Bible tradition is to accept and follow the whole revelation. One part of God's Word is not more important than another part of his Word. Moses was told to "speak" to the rock, but he "struck" it instead and for this seemingly minor infraction he was not allowed to enter the promised land. A man gathering sticks on the Sabbath was executed.

If the word spoken through angels proved stedfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard.

Ananias and his wife Sapphira gave up the ghost for lying to the Holy Spirit. The crime of Laodicea was being neither hot nor cold, and Jesus threatened to spew them out of his mouth. They were "poor and blind and naked" simply for being indifferent and unconcerned. We have no right to pronounce some part of Bible tradition as important and necessary and the rest of it as barren and useless. When our brothers do this, they ape denominational tradition.

We have some traditions in the church that are nothing more than custom. The time of meeting, the order of the service, two services on Lord's day, and the Wednesday evening gathering are all examples of human traditions. They are harmless and help to implement divine traditions, but they do not have the binding effect of Bible form and pattern. Scriptural traditions are inviolate and absolutely necessary - every one of them. Human traditions can be fine tuned and adjusted.

We should give long and careful thought to changing the traditions of our fathers. They had good reason for doing things the way they did them, and we need to be sure we understand the thinking behind the custom before we modify it or cast it aside.

That sums up traditions. We have Bible traditions, human traditions, Roman Catholic traditions, and Reformation traditions. Bible traditions are essential to our salvation, and God has made them so plain that "even he who runs may read and understand them." Human traditions are okay so long as they do not violate a Bible precept. Roman Catholic and Reformation traditions are wrongheaded and destructive of our eternal safety.

"Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you" (I Cor. 11:2).

"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 they received of us" (2 Thess. 3:6).


Published November 1993