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Two Sources of Authority

There is an apologetics oversimplification which gives the (straw-man) impression that alongside the written words of the scriptures, the apostles verbally told the bishops they ordained supplementary material which each bishop has passed on verbally to the next bishops they ordained in an unbroken chain of oral tradition. This is obviously nonsense. There is no fixed oral message, however big or small, that each bishop passes on to the next bishop.

The Bible Created the Church

I also come upon other apologia that talks in terms of the Bible creating the church in the sense of possibly acknowledging that there was tradition for a time, but the approach sees all this tradition running together into the single lake of the Bible. Some of these people may talk about “tradition” today, but by this they mean solely the tradition of interpretation of the Bible. Sola Scriptura (The Bible alone) reigns in this view.

Positive and Negative Views of Tradition

Part of the problem with the word “tradition” is that it gets bad press – especially from some of what Jesus says:

And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?…So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. (Matthew 15)

You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! (Mark 7)

And then there’s

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. (Colossians 2:8)

But tradition is not at all totally a negative concept:

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15)

I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you. (1 Corinthians 11:2)

Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. (2 Thessalonians 3:6)

How Tradition Works

Saint Paul, himself, understood the value of tradition – receiving and handing on (παράδοσις).

As well as the references in the previous section (2 Thes 2:15; 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2), he writes:

For I received (παρέλαβον parelabon) from the Lord what I also handed (παρέδωκα paredōka) on to you (1 Corinthians 11:23)

For I handed (παρέδωκα paredōka) on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received (παρέλαβον parelabon) (1 Corinthians 15:3)

Tradition was before scriptures. And the suggestion that tradition ceased as it was embodied into scriptures which subsumed and usurps it is plainly absurd.

Scripture Within Tradition

We have no (reputable) record of Jesus writing anything. Jesus’ life, teaching, mission, and ministry was lived and effective well before it was first written down. It was received and handed on in the community of his followers. Writing was often in response to a specific problem. Writing was within the context of the ongoing life of community which was handing on the tradition of the Jesus life and teaching from generation to generation.

From the plethora of documents, texts were chosen as Christian scriptures which were consonant with the tradition of the Christian community. Confusing passages were interpreted through the ongoing tradition of the Christian community.

The way of praying, the way of ordering the community, and so on, grew and evolved alongside the growth and evolution of the Christian scriptures and some of this tradition was canonised in comparable ways.

Those who tear the scriptures out of the ongoing life and tradition of the Christian community regularly end up with a rupture in their view of Christian history. For them (be they Mormons, or Jehovah Witnesses, or Worldwide Church of God, etc) the Gospel was lost for centuries from the time of the earliest church until it was “rediscovered” by them at the start of their movement.

What do you think?

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16 thoughts on “Tradition”

  1. Your vital observation, Bosco, IMHO, is this:

    “From the plethora of documents, texts were chosen as Christian scriptures which were consonant with the tradition of the Christian community.”

    I understand that to mean that Scripture becomes for the church a specific record of the apostolic tradition which will guide understanding of the tradition (yes, even as a tradition of understanding continues, itself enshrined in documents such as the creeds) and also stand in authority over what is subsequently claimed to be “the tradition.”

    Without that authority might the tradition have grown, evolved and become a thing almost unrecognisable from its beginning?

    Such growth is evidenced in teachings such as the Immaculate Conception, vigorously disputed by Christians who cannot see where such “traditional” teaching is supported by Scripture = authoritative tradition.

    From the sidebar of my blog:

    “The function of the Christian canon was to separate the apostolic witness from the ongoing tradition of the church, whose truth was continually in need of being tested by the apostolic faith.

    Brevard S. Childs”

    1. Agreed with most of that, thanks, Peter. I might see the relationship between scripture and tradition as a bit more dialectic than you are articulating. Certainly, I think that the scriptures are essential to the life of the church. But not sufficient. To pick up your point on the Immaculate Conception, I think you and I might be able to agree that it can be held as a pious opinion? I don’t need everything to require scriptural evidence (that is a key to this post). The Immaculate Conception presupposes an (Augustinian) understanding of Original Sin – foreign to Eastern Christianity. So for the specifics of the Immaculate Conception I would suggest all Christians may hold it, but none must hold it. Blessings.

      1. The difficulty with saying that all Christians may hold to the teaching of the Immaculate Conception without scriptural warrant is that the same may be said about all Christians may hold that the moon is made of cheese. I don’t think those Christians who hold to the Immaculate Conception hold to it because we are permitted to hold to all kinds of things which may turn out not to be true. They hold to it because they believe it to be true.

        But when we ask about its truth, its scriptural basis is sorely lacking, and when we ask about its traditional backing, that lacks unity across Christendom!

        1. You could argue similarly about holding to the Augustinian understanding of Original Sin, Peter. Many would say, “its scriptural basis is sorely lacking, and when we ask about its traditional backing, that lacks unity across Christendom!” Blessings.

  2. Love the video!

    May I add the thought that traditions are not unchanging, but each generation builds something onto the foundations laid by the generations bfore them, hence we have a wide variety of Christian expression and cultures within the world today.

    1. Thanks, Claudia. I think your point fits with something that keeps coming up in different forms, and I think has merit: the idea of a trajectory. Blessings.

  3. This is a good post Bosco.

    The big problem seems to be how to discern what is the authentic Tradition handed down from Christ and what is it’s merely human ways of formulating it.

    And how do we apply Tradition to modern issues without getting bogged down in our merely human tradition ?


    1. Thanks, Chris. I think your point is a key. I might approach this more from a trajectory perspective – the idea that there is a development within the tradition, and discerning which development fits with the trajectory we have from Christ and which does not. Blessings.

  4. The appeal to tradition makes for weak arguments, I suppose, but it also shows itself as vibrant and life affirming. I think of the significantly diverse traditional beliefs of our Jewish brothers and sisters, and I am encouraged by how such a wide range of practices lead them to God.

  5. re the ‘Immaculate Conception’; I now understand that to have been all about the Conception of Jesus, via The Holy Spirit and Mary, the Mother of Christ. I can go along with that interpretation of what has been considered to be a dogmatic pronouncement. It sounds eminently reasonable to me, a Sinner!

    There are other ‘pious beliefs’ of the Church that are without Scriptural warrant; like the Assumption of the Mother of Christ. However, If that was a trajectory accorded to a mere Prophet of the O.T. (Elijah), I can accept the oral tradition that this was also the fate of The BVM.

    There is much that goes on in Churches that has not been precisely identified in Scripture, but which has grown up to be part of their individual tradition – like individual cups at the Eucharist, for instance, but we don’t ban such practices – especially if we believe that our personal health is at stake. The fact that our ‘faith’ may be compromised – in either decision about this – can be a moot point.

    I’ve just been told, by Ian Paul on his blog that my quoting of Jesus’ use of the word ‘eunuch’ in Mathew 19:11 & 12 was priobaby a mistake – not mentioned by Mark and therefore inadmissable. I suspec this is because some scholars found the content of these verses to be alien to their understanding of the possibility of Jesus talking about “a eunuch from their mother’s womb” being about someone born Gay.
    As a result of this dismissal of the words of Matthew; how could someone Sola Scriptura ever believe that ‘every word of Scripture is from God’?

    Interpretation of the Scriptures has, traditionally, always been by someone – even the Scholars – keen to demonstrate (prove?) a particular point – usually about a discipline dear to their own heart. This is why cerain verses – the ‘purple passages’ are held as sacred by those with a conservative, punitive view of God’s dealings with God’s human children; whereas, passages like those in the ‘Song of Songs’ that speak of human carnal pleasures are so often interpreted as merely metaphorical, with little practical application for people of today. ‘Context is clearly applicable for the Song of Songs, but not for the few statements about sexual morality.

  6. Forgive my ignorance, Father Ron, but the immaculate conception refers to Mary’s being conceived without original sin, doesn’t it? (Hahaha, as a Roman Catholic, I probably don’t understand the Anglican tradition well enough.)

    1. Thanks, Kevin. The Immaculate Conception does indeed refer to the conception of Mary – I don’t think that the tradition one belongs to alters that referring. Blessings.

  7. Looking at “Of Ceremonies, why some should be abolished, and some retained” in the Book of Common Prayer, it seems helpful to replace the word “ceremonies” with “traditions” and then appreciate that traditions may have started with good intentions but at length need a rethink because of what they have turned into over time… at least as much as any question of where the tradition comes from.

    I think the “litmus test” Jesus applied to the traditions of the Scribes and Pharisees was a quite pragmatic “what has it resulted in?” question, seemingly accepting that human traditions are going to keep happening, but teaching you do have to seriously ask every so often “is this (still) glorifying God?” and be prepared to tread on toes a bit when you know the answer.

  8. Kevin – belatedly on your comment – my own original understanding was that of the official Roman view. However, I have lately revised my own understanding about what Our Blessed Lady just might have said at Lourdes. Rather than “I am The Immaculate Conception” might she not have said “In me is the I.C.” ?

    Maybe a fantasy in my part, I am aware. But perhaps no greater a fantasy than the original ‘conception’.
    At least we coud probably all agree that the Conception of Jesus was pretty ‘Immaculate”.

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