Over the years I’ve seen people pit scripture versus tradition as if we must make an either-or choice. Either we can put our faith in scripture or in tradition, but not both. Or at least, that’s how many would like to frame it.
But the truth is not so simple. It rarely is.
I recently got into a discussion about the Trinity with someone. He was arguing that it was an unscriptural idea because the word ‘Trinity’ wasn’t in the Bible. In other words, the ‘Trinity’ is mere tradition. A doctrine of man.
I pointed to his Bible and asked a simple question, “How do you know that these 66 books are all scripture? And how do you know that there aren’t other books out there that we should include?”
He thought about it for a moment and started to quote 2 Timothy 3:16 but I stopped him.
“I’m not saying that scripture isn’t God-breathed or inspired. I’m not even saying that these books aren’t scripture. I believe they are. I’m simply asking why you believe that these 66, and only these 66 books are scripture.”
He went silent. So I answered for him: “You believe it because of tradition.”
There are no lists of canonical books in the Bible. And in fact, we can’t even argue that the Old Testament should be made up of books that the New Testament quotes. The New Testament authors don’t quote some books that we do consider canonical (Ezra, Esther, Ecclesiastes, etc.). And there are New Testament quotes from books that we don’t consider canonical (Jude’s quotation of 1 Enoch).
So what do we do? We thank God for tradition.
1. Tradition Shapes Us
Many of the most strident ‘anti-tradition’ Christians I’ve known through the years have been incredibly traditional. The issue isn’t really ‘tradition vs. scripture.’ The issue is ‘my tradition vs. your tradition.’
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have traditions. Scripture doesn’t mandate many things. We’re not told that we have to go to a worship service on Sunday (or Saturday for that matter). We aren’t commanded to use pianos, guitars, or drums (or sing a capella for that matter). God didn’t give instructions on the length of worship services, whether they should be planned or unplanned, or the need for a choir (or lack thereof).
God has given us a great deal of latitude in many of these areas. So as time has gone on, we’ve all developed our own traditions about what we believe and how we practice our faith.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, traditions can be very good as long as they’re always kept in check by scripture, reason, and experience (scripture always being preeminent).
Traditions are valuable because they shape us. They, like habits, teach us the important things by regularly reinforcing them.
Whether we realize it or not, the traditions we hold and practice are forming us – and others in our congregation.
2. Tradition Ties Us to the Past
Many ‘restoration’ movements sprung up in the United States throughout the 1800s. And though they grew out of different soils, they shared one goal: recreate the Church as read about in Acts.
Some of these movements, like some Church of Christ groups, rejected anything not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament (hence the a capella singing). Others were willing to be more lenient on these issues but drew the line at anything which smacked of Catholicism (hence the lack of Christmas).
Rather than seeing value in the broader Christian tradition, those years made a virtue out of cutting off any connection to ‘traditional’ Christianity. For some, the further away you could get from what most Christians believed or did, the better.
I believe this was a grave error. Tradition is not sinful. It isn’t something we pit against scripture or truth. Tradition ties us into an unbroken chain of believers that stretches back to Abraham himself.
Christianity is not a recent invention. It isn’t something we finally got right 100 or 200 years ago.
It is the “faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). And it’s been being handed down ever since Jude penned those words.
As we value tradition – even the traditions of other streams of Christianity – we’ll realize that we are one small part in God’s very big work. We’ll be reminded that we’re not alone. God has had a people throughout history and throughout the world.
Every time we sing the Doxology or pray the Lord’s Prayer, we’re joining our voices with generations of Christians who have lifted their voices in worship.
In short, tradition reminds us that the world doesn’t revolve around us. It revolves around the Son.
3. Tradition Gives Us Boundaries
In the last section, I mentioned the ‘restoration’ movements of the 1800s. What isn’t always considered is the fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism grew out of the exact same soil.
The reason that these two heretical forms of Christianity were able to take root was because people had been prepared by these ‘restoration’ movements to see tradition as an enemy. As a result, when these groups came on the scene and threw off all tradition – including the Trinity, Jesus’ divinity, and even monotheism – people fell for it.
They believed the lie that tradition doesn’t matter – or even worse, that tradition is the enemy.
One of the values of tradition, though, is that it gives us boundaries for our belief and practice. When preachers start teaching things that no Christian has ever taught, you should probably start walking in the other direction. When he starts declaring, “We are the true church,” you better run.
Throughout the past two millennia, Christians have disagreed on a lot. But at the same time, there’s been a remarkable amount that we’ve agreed on. That area of agreement helps us to see just how far theology and doctrine can stretch before it’s no longer Christian.
I’d highly recommend every Christian read Roger Olson’s book, The Mosaic of Christian Belief. He attempts to paint the boundaries of the Christian tradition by examining all of the major doctrines and theological ideas.
In other words, tradition helps us avoid heresy.
So don’t be afraid of tradition. Instead, examine your traditions. Discover other Christian traditions. Judge them all by the scriptures.
And allow them to do their job. Let them form you, tie you to historical Christianity, and keep you from heresy.
Scripture and tradition needn’t be enemies. If we allow them to be, they can be the best of friends.
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