Scripture vs. Tradition

A couple of months ago I posted a blog entitled The Danger of Abandoning Sola Scriptura.  The premise behind that post was the supposedly divine revelation that Pastor Terry Jones received which he claimed directed him to schedule his Koran burning event.  That post was directly aimed toward the extra-biblical revelation that so many people claim to receive from God that tells them to do or not do certain things.  In it we looked at the historicity of Sola Scriptura as it existed during the Protestant Reformation as a counter to the Roman Catholic teaching of that day and we also looked at some modern day examples of the dangers (Experiencing God) involved in seeking divine revelation outside of the Bible.  Since then, I’ve received multiple comments which I’ve responded to, each attacking with the central argument that Sola Scriptura is not biblical and that tradition reigns supreme over the Bible.  Just a few weeks ago, I received an additional comment which included some 10 verses attempting to prove that tradition existed in biblical times and should therefore be carried forward today.  The problem with that logic is that it fails to realize that God was still continuing to reveal Himself in a divine way to the apostles and prophets that He had appointed, i.e. His revelation to men was not yet finalized. 

What amazes me is that so much effort is placed into finding verses that present supposed “unanswered questions” or the few that contain quotes that are not found verbatim in Scripture as though some Da Vinci Code conspiracy theory exists and we are all held in the dark until those questions are resolved.  While refuting each incorrect assumption regarding those passages is outside the scope of this post, the fact of the matter is these passages have such little bearing on understanding who God is, His divine attributes, who His Son is, salvation, justification, sanctification, etc.  Sola Scriptura says that the Bible is not only inerrant, but that it is sufficient for all that the believer needs and that it is the sole source for guidance within the Church (this is not to the neglect of the Holy Spirit as He teaches and guides us through the Word of God).  The Bible alone is sufficient.  This means that traditions and historical writings, while profitable, do not hold superior weight to the Bible.  Additionally, God’s divine special revelation  is closed and He has provided everything we need in life to live according to His will through His Word and the giving of His Holy Spirit to all who are believers in Christ. 

As mentioned, the argument is always that the Bible itself provides evidence for the use of tradition and that somehow those examples are placed above the authority of God’s Word.  In this argument, I’ve yet to hear mention of the passage from Mark 7:1-13 which is a direct and explicit mention of the traditions of men.  Here is the passage:

1 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, 2 they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.  5 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

   “‘This people honors me with their lips,
   but their heart is far from me;
7 in vain do they worship me,
   teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)— 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

 Jesus is confronting the Pharisees about the weight that they place on their own tradition over the commandments of God, i.e. His Word.  He is rebuking them for their many traditions that they have passed down and expressly states that in following the traditions of men they have made “void the word of God.”  Now I ask, could there be a more clear warning of the danger of that comes with placing tradition above God’s Word?  Here is the question that must be asked by those who hold tradition over Scripture, how can fallible, fallen men, who have clearly proceeded incorrectly in their traditions, as rebuked by Christ and defined in Mark 7, be assured that any future traditions are likewise correct?  Are we to assume that this was just a momentary hiccup and that man has somehow regained his footing on upholding all future traditions over Scripture?  Who is left then to define what traditions are to be passed down and followed closely and which ones are to be disregarded as Christ said of those mentioned earlier. 

The Pharisees and those who hold to traditions over Scripture make a decision to choose sola ecclesia over sola scriptura.  The position of sola ecclesia asserts that the church holds the final, infallible authority, not God’s Word.  To claim that the church (i.e. Roman Catholic Church) can somehow hold the position of determining the extent and meaning of tradition while simultaneously defining the extent and meaning of Scripture places them in the awkward position of choosing which to be submissive to.  It certainly cannot be both, so the hand is forced to choose.  Is it tradition or God’s Word?  The Pharisees chose to hold fast to their traditions passed down through the generations over the commandments of the Lord in His Word, just like those today that choose to uphold the traditions of the church over God’s Word.  What this boils down to is man’s interpretations and traditions vs. God’s divinely inspired, inerrant Word.  Let me repeat that, man’s traditions vs. God’s Word.  Let that sink in for a minute, because at its heart this is the fundamentally fatal flaw of many churches and church-goers today.  To place man above God, either in salvation or orthodoxy is the foundation of every heresy from the Apostle Paul’s day until now.

The position of Sola Scriptura is not battling against the existence of tradition in Scripture, but rather it stands against the incorrect weight applied to traditions that are set over and above the Word of God.  It refers to the time when Scripture is complete and God’s Word was no longer being revealed and it simply states that the Bible is sufficient and authoritative.  It alone is all the believer and the Church needs.  Who are you going to trust, men and their traditions or God and His Word? 

See also: http://vintage.aomin.org/SS.html

4 thoughts on “Scripture vs. Tradition”

  1. A few quick thoughts.
    1. In quoting Mark, you describe how Jesus condemns the weight the Pharisees put on their own traditions with respect to Torah. That’s not a general condemnation of any sort of tradition with respect to ‘God’s word’.
    2. Where did Scripture come from? The New Testament wasn’t compiled for a couple centuries, and it was more the product of popular Christian use, acceptance, and some semblance of known authorship. Was it not then a product of Christian Tradition? (Note that this is in no way demeaning it.) Further, how do you know that the Scriptures are ‘God’s word’ and not ‘man’s word about God’? Is that knowledge not an element of Tradition?
    3. Is not Sola Scriptura an appeal to tradition? Note that what the New Testament writers meant by ‘Scripture’ is different than what you mean by it, since it would have been a bit hard to refer to the New Testament.
    4. With a slight generalization, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (pretty much all Christians until the 16th century) don’t really condemn the Scriptures as less than what they might call ‘Holy Tradition’. Rather, they understand the Scriptures as a part of Tradition.

  2. 1. I’m not sure I follow your argument here. In the passage from Mark, a contrast is made between the Pharisaic tradition and the commandments of God. Note in the passage verse 3, “tradition of the elders”, verse 4, “many other traditions that they observe”, verse 5, “according to the tradition of the elders” establishing that there are traditions which the “Pharisees and all the Jews” followed. The first 2 examples are commentary from Mark, the third is a quote from the Pharisees themselves. Now notice how Jesus responds to them, by quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, literally “God’s Word”, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Then Jesus provides clear proof of the contrast being made, “you leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
    Again in the following verse, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” Notice once again Jesus’ argument is based from the Old Testament this time the Law of Moses. So He has contrasted man-made tradition with the Law and the Prophets. In context, it is a direct condemnation of their tradition as we see in the final statement, “thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down”. Again a contrast between the word of God, i.e. the Law and Prophets, and that of their tradition.

    2. Actually the New Testament was written during the first century, the same century in which Jesus lived and died. It seems clear that the Gospels are a historical account of the Jesus’ earthy ministry, while the epistles were letters written to Churches. I don’t see how they would be considered largely a product of tradition?

    As to the Scriptures being “God’s Word”, we really need go no further than the self-authentication of the Bible. We read in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” The phrase, “breathed out by God” literally means God-breathed, and is the Greek word, theopneustos. Additionally, in 2 Peter 1:20-21 we read, “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” thus indicating that Scripture is not a human product, but rather the product of Divine revelation.
    The argument for the New Testament inclusion in Scripture can be supported in 2 Peter 3:15-16 as Peter refers to the epistles of Paul as inclusive with the “rest of the Scriptures”.

    3. The principle of Sola Scriptura is not an appeal to tradition, because the term is derived from the verses I just provided. Like other doctrines, it is not self-derived, but simply a statement used to represent the synthesis of several Scripture passages. So if an appeal is made to Sola Scriptura, it means that an appeal is being made to Scripture alone, or otherwise the Word of God.

    4. I don’t really have a comment on this. It may or may not be true, but it seems circular to establish Scripture as tradition based on tradition. As I think I’ve shown, Scripture can be established clearly as God’s Word based on nothing less and nothing more than the Word of God itself. In other words it is self-authenticating.

    Hope this helps clear up any misunderstanding that my post created.
    In Christ Alone, John

  3. 1. I’m just suggesting that the passage isn’t contrasting adherence to the Pharisees’ traditions against adherence to Torah. Rather, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees’ interpretations of Torah since they are following them to the exclusion (and annulment) of ‘God’s commandments’. It’s not necessarily that their traditions are wrong, but that the Pharisees are failing to heed God’s commandments (note v. 8-13). (Granted, the passage assumes that the traditions are wrong since they conflict with God’s commandment, but it in no way condemns a tradition if it also adhered to Torah.)

    2. I am aware that the New Testament was written during the first century, but there were other texts written as well. The compilation (canonisation, etc.) of these texts into the Bible, however, was not done for several centuries, and there was some debate as to which should be included, especially with respect to the Shepherd of Hermas, Hebrews, the Didache, and a couple others. (Note that I’m not arguing that certain ‘Gnostic’ gospels were debated for inclusion since they weren’t.) So, how were they chosen? How were they selected? Why Hebrews and not the Didache? That was the responsibility of God’s Tradition.

    2b. Two thoughts. First, 2 Peter 3.15-6 doesn’t argue for the inspiration for all the texts contained in the New Testament, only for some (all?) of the Apostle Paul’s epistles. Further, it makes no argument for its own inclusion in Scripture or its own inspiration. Second, the other two passages you cite make reference to the Jewish scriptures, not the NT canon (which I think you are aware). So, on what foundation are these inspired, apart from Tradition?

    3. The verses you provided in (2b) say nothing about the Scriptures as the sole authority on religious matters. Further, if they did, that would seem a bit circular.

    4. I don’t think it’s circular to say that Scripture is an element of ‘Holy Tradition’. It is based on the assumption that the Holy Spirit has guided the decisions and paths the Church has traversed (at least) since Christ’s ascension. This includes the writing of Scripture and other extrabiblical Christian letters, the congregation of councils and creeds to determine how Christians ought to live and what they ought to believe, and the compilation of Scripture as an authoritative text. That’s not circular: it’s just founded on a particular assumption which seems reasonable (and Biblical) from what we know of Christ and the disciples. Accepting the Bible apart from Tradition requires more tenuous assumptions (e.g., the texts are God’s word, the texts did not undergo alterations, the compilers didn’t include the wrong texts, etc.). If one uses Scripture to prove that all of the texts included in the Bible are inspired (which you haven’t), that would be circular.

    Note also that I’m not arguing for the acceptance of Catholic or Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox tradition; instead, I’m suggesting that Christian Tradition, in general, is not ungodly. And, further, that it might be significant for Protestants too.

  4. You bring up alot of interesting points, probably more than I can address in comments. But as I read your response, a couple things stuck out to me that may be central to your statements:

    The first thing I observe from your response, and I may be wrong, surely it is difficult to tell from a comments section on a blog, is the inspiration of Scripture and its related authority. Some questions to think about (rhetorical): what authority does it have? Is it ultimate? Is it exclusive? Is the Bible sufficient for us or do we need tradition, etc.? What authority does God’s Word actually hold? Better yet, is it God’s Word? If so, does it require we submit to it? (see: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_divineorigin.html and http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/warfield/warfield_probleminspiration.html)

    Second, the nature of canonization. Was this strictly a human endeavor? Or do we believe that God oversaw not only the writing of His Word through the giving of divine inspiration to men carried along by the Spirit, but also the assembling of His Word. Did He leave us with less than we needed? Was God updated or corrected by the efforts of men? Or did God oversee the relatively small number of transcription errors and minimal “changes” that have been made? All of which we have “mysteriously” (tongue-in-cheek) been able to identify.

    No doubt you are well read and informed on the subject, that is evident. I appreciate your graceful interaction.

    In Christ alone,
    John

    P.S. If you’d like some resources that would help answer your questions in a more complete manner than I can through I blog, a good introduction to both the Old and New Testament will help explain authorship, canonization, and the higher criticism (which you seem to bring up) that Scripture has faced. Merrill, et.al., would be excellent for the OT and Carson and Moo for the NT. A doctrinal synopsis of the position I am stating can be found in Grudem’s Systematic Theology (or probably any conservative, orthodox systematic work). Of note, Grudem’s lectures on his book can be found here: http://feeds.feedburner.com/Systematic_Theology Of interest to you may be Chapters 1-8.

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