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?
- Revealed In The Bible?
- Wrong about sola scriptura
- Remember to Survive
- How Revealed Is Christianity?