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.
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.
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.
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.
#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:
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.
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.
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.
#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:
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:
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:
#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!
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)
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)
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)
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.
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).
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.
Article by Brent
MacDonald of Lion Tracks Ministries (c) 2010 BJM/LTM