Is all tradition good? Is all tradition bad?
What about traditional Christian creeds and confessions of faith?


Some hold that all tradition is wrong, or at least all tradition in regards to their church or Christianity as a whole, mostly due to the abuses of some professed Christian denominations and churches who appeal to tradition as being co-equal or perhaps superior to Scriptures. Roman Catholicism provides one of the most serious examples of this, wherein the church itself, or more specifically the Popes of this church, claim that they can establish "sacred tradition" and that it becomes authoritative and must be mandatorily believed and practiced by the church as a whole. In a backlash to such thinking, some Protestant churches use the word "tradition" as a pejorative, almost as a swearword and certainly with distain. They do this even though they themselves have and hold to numerous traditions, sometimes fanatically so.

A study of tradition throughout Scriptures shows that the word has both positive and negative uses and connotations. When a word can be used both positively and negatively it then becomes important to see what qualifies as each. In fact, there appears to be six different types of tradition mentioned or inferred in Scriptures.

#1. Holy Written Tradition = God's Inspired Word / Written Scriptures

The ultimate and highest tradition is God's written word. While some would say it is not proper to refer to Scriptures by this term; tradition, by definition, is merely something taught or practiced that is handed down. In modern usage many exclusively hold tradition to being statements, beliefs, customs, or information passed down from previous generations by word of mouth. While this later sense is incorporated in the word, it is not exclusively so. God's word is tradition, handed down from previous generations. What the church should recognize is that this tradition is unique, both for its source and authorship, but also for its preservation and careful transmission to us. It alone retains perfect authority for all generations.

Paul refers to God's written word, in 2 Timothy, as coming from God and having authority - indeed all we need to know to accomplish every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (NIV)

In light of the previous passage in 2 Timothy, consider these addition words of the Apostle Paul (each provided twice to show to English renderings of the same). This is tradition with authority, namely the Word of God.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (NIV, bold to highlight written tradition)

2 Thessalonians 2:15 So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. (NASU, bold to highlight written tradition)

2 Thessalonians 3:6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. (NIV, bold to highlight written tradition, certainly a part of what Paul was referring to.)

2 Thessalonians 3:6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. (NASU, bold to highlight written tradition, certainly a part of what Paul was referring to.)

With the passing of the last Apostle, this written tradition is complete and fully sufficient for doctrinal authority. It was only by the prophets (Old Testament) and apostles (New Testament) that God's word was fully revealed for all time.

Ephesians 3:4-5 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. (NIV, also Ephesians 2:20)

2 Peter 3:2 I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles. (NIV)

Any who erroneously claim that God still needs someone now to be making authoritative doctrinal decisions, on behalf of the church, fails to recognize that God can and did reveal all that was necessary in the past. He knows the future perfectly and is working it out according to his plan.

Isaiah 46:10 I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please. (NIV)

#2. Holy Verbal Tradition = God's Inspired Word as Spoken

God, at various times, had His message spoken directly to a specific people at a given time and place in history. In each case this message was proclaimed by an authenticated messenger from God; an angel, a prophet, or an apostle. To the people this message was given, this word was authoritative and accepted as the very words of God. Examples abound throughout Scriptures; a few of them are as follows:

Jeremiah 1:9 Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me [a prophet], "Now, I have put my words in your mouth. (NIV, parenthesis for clarification)

Luke 1:18-20 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." 19 The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time." (NIV)

1 Corinthians 11:2 I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings, just as I [an apostle] passed them on to you. (NIV, parenthesis for clarification. Note that the word "teachings" can be legitimately translated "traditions" as does the NASU)

Acts 13:44-46 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. 46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We [apostles] had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. (NIV, parenthesis for clarification)

2 Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, we [the apostles] gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (NIV, parenthesis for clarification)

1 Thessalonians 2:13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us [the apostles], you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe. (NIV)

No message given by an angel, a prophet or an apostle would ever contradict or oppose God's previous revelation. God does not contradict Himself or lie. This is why part of the authentication of every messenger of God was comparing his words to God's word as given before them, especially in the five Books of Moses as Moses was uniquely authenticated in a manner beyond every prophet that ever came after him (i.e. Deuteronomy 34:10-12). No prophet, or apostle, or angel, would oppose a person testing his words against God's earlier revelation, indeed they would welcome it.

Acts 17:11 Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (NIV)

Galatians 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! (NIV)

In the early days of the church it was necessary to hear the word of God repeated by those who had been taught it directly by the Apostles. This did not negate the need to compare this teaching with the written word of God, as the people had it available in increasing completeness. First they would, as did the Bereans, compare it to the Old Testament canon and then to the books of the New as they were recognized.

2 Timothy 2:2 And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (NIV)

In some cases, a couple centuries went by before churches had the complete canon, but they still had God's word as passed on by reliable menEnd Note 2 and as compared with the portions of God's word that they had on hand. With God's written word, in His timing finally complete, and fully circulated, there is no need to rely upon the fallible witness of man. But wherein this is the necessary source of the message (as it may still be in some languages), these reliable and believing men who bring the message, as did the prophets and apostles of old, will welcome comparison and the test of God's written Scriptures.

#3. Holy Exhibited Tradition = God's Word Demonstrated

One way God's word is handed down is through example. People living out their faith in God and following his commands is necessary tradition. This does not make every action of a believer, or repeated and duplicated actions of many believers, into something authoritative. Their actions must be weighed and compared to a higher standard, namely the example of Christ and His revealed word.

1 Corinthians 4:16-17 Therefore I urge you to imitate me. 17 For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (NIV, bold to show the exhibited tradition and the standard it must hold to)

1 Corinthians 11:1 Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (NIV, bold to show the exhibited tradition and the standard it must hold to)

1 Thessalonians 1:6a You became imitators of us and of the Lord; (NIV, bold to show the exhibited tradition and the standard it must hold to)

2 Thessalonians 3:9 We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. (NIV, bold to show the exhibited tradition)

Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (NIV, bold to show the exhibited tradition) [Consider also Philippians 3:17, 1 Peter 5:3]

#4. Expedient Tradition = Personal/Group Traditions

Get any group together, small or large, and common practices will arise. As such this is assumed and recognized by Scriptures. For example, consider this verse in Hebrews:

Hebrews 10:25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (NIV)

While the bad habit of not getting together with other believers is clearly in view, the reverse is what needs to be emphasized here. Meeting "together" by definition requires a common tradition, specifically where to meet and when to meet. (For most of us that is commonly Sunday).

Holidays were a part of the Old Testament Law, once making them a shared tradition with the authority of God. As we are no longer under the law, we no longer have divinely mandated holidays. This is not to say that God is against holiday celebrations and gathering, merely that they have now been left to our freedom in Christ. We can now craft our own traditions. The only clear admonition from God is that we don't use this freedom to sin (e.g. 1 Peter 2:16) and our individual freedom is not to be imposed on others:

Romans 14:5-6a One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. (NIV)

If any believer wants to celebrate Christmas or birthdays, they have the freedom to do so, or not!

Another example of a good custom, or expedient tradition, personal to the Apostle Paul is found in the book of Acts. It was not mandated for everyone to do likewise, nor is seen to be the practice even of all the other Apostles in Scriptures. Yet, for Paul, it was a good and useful tradition:

Acts 17:2-3 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said. (NIV)


#5. Creeds = Handed Down Confessions of Faith

Within some branches of Protestantism, creeds are slandered as being anti-Biblical. Indeed, some creeds are anti-Biblical, conveying sentiments and beliefs that are contrary to the meaning and intent of Scriptures. But are all creeds wrong? In trying to say so, some have claimed that "confessions" are good and "creeds" are wrong. They artificially define creeds as something that must be mandatorily followed versus confessions that are voluntarily adhered to.End Note 4 While some groups, churches, or denominations may have made their creed mandatory, this goes beyond the meaning of the word. The modern English word "Creed" came to us from Middle English ("Crede") and Old English ("Creeda") but was derived from the Latin word "Credo", meaning "I believe" and a related Latin word "Credereto" meaning "believe" or "trust". Simply put, a Creed is what "I believe." This makes any distinction between a confession and a creed to be completely artificial.End Note 1 Confessions of faith have been used by groups to exclude or include even as creeds as have.

All creeds produced by the Christian church over the millennia since the time of Christ are not inspired additions to Scriptures. They are not intended to be replacements to the words of Christ, the prophets or the apostles. Rather, the carefully considered and typically cautiously worded statements were statements of belief in response to contemporary issues, heresies and situations facing the church of their day. As such they are summaries of what Scriptures teach (consider the Apostle's Creed). Are they authoritative? Only wherein they clearly express the meaning and intent of God's Word. If they faithfully do this, they are to be accepted and followed - for in this they convey God's Word. It is natural and indeed necessary for Christians to have creeds (or confessions). These enable us to express a summary of God's truth without having to restate the totality of Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. They are especially effective in being able to refute error in a summary fashion (of course, pointing the seeker to Scriptures as being the only complete authority on these subjects).

The precious paragraph started with a statement that Creeds are not inspired additions to Scriptures. This is true of Creeds following the death of the apostolic authors of the New Testament and of some that likely existed prior. A few creeds, or summary statements of belief, were incorporated directly into Scriptures. Imagine this; God has summaries of belief, some which appear to have been commonly circulated in the early days of the church, incorporated into His Word. These creeds are inspired Scriptures!

1 Corinthians 15:3-8 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV, bold to show the creed)

1 Timothy 3:16 Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (NIV, bold to show the creed)

2 Timothy 2:8-13 Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, 9 for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained. 10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory. 11 Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him. If we disown him, he will also disown us; 13 if we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself. (NIV, bold to show the creed)

It appears that creeds, by Scriptural example, are brief summaries - perhaps making them more memorable and useful. In contrast, most Protestant confessions of faith exceed numerous pages, including famous ones such at the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (more than 30 chapters each!). This makes them far less practical for quick recitation, as summaries of belief, as were the early creeds of Scriptures or even the later Apostle's Creed. For the Baptist who returns to their classic, "no creed but Scriptures alone", ask him what he believes and if he quotes any less than the totality of Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 in response, remind him that his summary is, by definition, a creed. If it's in agreement with Scriptures, that's okay!

#6. False Tradition = Myth and False Doctrine

A dangerous form of tradition, frequently warned about in the pages of Scriptures, is that which teaches false doctrine or examples incorrect practices. Those who utilize this want to obscure, or conceal, or add to, the message of Scriptures. They care little for truth and seek to use God's word as a means to control men. Every category of tradition previously examined can be turned into false tradition by the manipulations of man. Wherein the Jews have made traditions equal to Scriptures (e.g. the Talmud, the Misnah) and the Roman Catholics have decreed extra books to be part of God's Word (the apocrypha), they both have attempted to alter God's true written tradition. While their efforts do work to obscure God's Word for the people, God's true revelation still stands. The only cure for false tradition is to expose it for what it is by using the Truth (i.e. principle of Ephesians 5:10-13 and John 8:32)

Mark 7:1-8 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2 saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were "unclean," that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, "Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?" 6 He replied, "Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: "'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.' 8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men." (NIV)

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (NIV)

Colossians 2:20-23 Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 21 "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? 22 These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. 23 Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (NIV)

2 Timothy 4:2-4 Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage - with great patience and careful instruction. 3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (NIV)

1 Timothy 4:1-5 The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. 2 Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (NIV)

Titus 1:13b-14 Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth. (NIV)

If the Roman Catholic Pope "is tradition", as one once proclaimed End Note 3, then the answer is clear, their tradition rests in the authority of a man, the pope. Valid tradition rests solely in God's Word. Test it! (e.g. 1 John 4:1)

End Notes

1. A covenant would be something considered more binding that a confession or creed. It's interesting that many churches who oppose creeds bind their members to "church covenants" some of which include statements that go beyond Scriptures in regulating the behavior of their members (e.g. banning drinking of alcoholic beverages)

2. Consider the statement of Iranaeus of Gaul (modern France) in the late second century:

For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches? To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendor, shall come in glory, the Savior of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established. (Iranaeus, died 202 A.D., Against Heresies, written circa 180 A.D., Book 3, Chapter 4, End of Section 1, Section 2)

Those who claim that Iranaeus (as does the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to defend her unbiblical practice of adding to and altering Scriptures by their decreed "traditions") held Scriptures and Tradition to be equal only wherein the tradition was fully in line with God's written word. The standard was always Scriptures to which he repeatedly appealed throughout his writings.

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father "to gather all things in one," and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, "every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess" to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send "spiritual wickednesses," and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. (Iranaeus, died 202 A.D., Against Heresies, written circa 180 A.D., Book 1, Chapter 10, Section 1, Start of Section 2)

3. In the late 19th century, Roman Catholic Pope Pius IX, directly tied himself and the papacy to all Roman Catholic tradition. His quote: "Tradition? I am Tradition." This claim has never been refuted by any subsequent Pope.

4. Baptist statements in regards to a perceived difference betweens creeds and confessions may be seen in three excerpts from an article entitled "Difference between creeds & confessions seen in application" (by Mark Wingfield, Baptist Standard, June 26, 2000).

"Baptists have always been a confessional people and not a creedal people," said Leon McBeth, distinguished professor of church history at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "A creed excludes, and a confession includes. A creed tells you what you must believe, and a confession affirms what you do believe."

"A confession and a creed can be worded exactly the same way. The thing that determines whether it's a confession or a creed is how it's used," said Charles Deweese, director of the Southern Baptist Historical Society. "A confession is a document to which there is a voluntary response," he added. "A creed is a statement of belief which is in a sense forced on a body--there is an attempt to achieve a level of uniformity or conformity."

Alan Lefever, director of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection, agreed there is a definite difference between a confession of faith and a creed and that the difference is in the application. "A confession is something you use to find common ground," he said. "A creed is something you use to force agreement or uniformity. That's the difference in a nutshell."

Another scholar, quoted in the same article, rightly asserts that a creed is a statement of belief synonymous with many other terms commonly employed in church history.

McBeth's view is countered by Greg Wills, assistant professor of church history at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Throughout Baptist history, Baptists have used the terms 'creed,' 'confession of faith,' 'articles of faith,' 'summary of doctrines' and 'abstract of principles' synonymously," Wills said. "You find all those terms or phrases used to describe a summary of doctrine."

Article by Brent MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries (c) 2010 BJM/LTM
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