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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Bible Basics: An Introduction to Christian Beliefs

Don Stewart :: What Is the Place of Tradition in Determining Christian Doctrine?

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What Is the Place of Tradition in Determining Christian Doctrine?

Bible Basics – Question 5

An important issue that must be considered is the place of “tradition” in the determination of authoritative Christian doctrine. What role, if any, does tradition have? Does tradition have the same authority as written Scripture?

Tradition Defined

The word, “tradition,” comes from a word meaning, “to hand over.” It has the idea of accepting beliefs or practices that have been handed down from others. Any group that exists for a period of time will develop its own traditions. From the Bible, we learn the following about the right and wrong use of tradition:

1. The Bible Says There Are Good Traditions

Before the New Testament was put into writing, the message was conveyed by word of mouth, or tradition. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the traditions which had been passed down to him. He said:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread. (1 Corinthians 11:23 NET)

Paul taught Timothy to hold on to the traditions that he had been taught. He emphasized that these traditions present a divine standard for belief and practice. He said:

Hold to the standard of sound words that you heard from me and do so with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 1:13 NET)

The Contemporary English Version translates the verse in this manner:

Now follow the example of the correct teaching I gave you, and let the faith and love of Christ Jesus be your model. (2 Timothy 1:13 CEV)

Once these oral traditions were committed to writing, there was an authoritative source for all Christians for all time—the New Testament.

2. Scripture Says There Are Bad Traditions

The Bible also mentions traditions that are not good. Jesus warned against such traditions that contradict the Word of God. Matthew records the following episode:

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 ESV)

The New Living Translation puts it this way:

Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to interview Jesus. “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old traditions?” they demanded. “They ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.” Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God?” (Matthew 15:1-3 NLT)

In this case, the current traditions of the religious authorities violated the express commands that God had previously revealed.

3. New Traditions Arose after the Time of Christ That Differed from Scripture

Eventually a “new” testament was written by those whom Jesus had specially chosen. Consequently, it was no longer necessary to pass on traditions about Christ; the written Word was the final standard on all matters of faith and practice. However, after the time of Christ and His apostles, there arose a number of church practices that differed from the truths taught in Scripture. These non-biblical traditions brought a strong reaction from those who accepted the authority of Scripture. These traditions were rejected because they contradicted what the Bible clearly said. Again, Scripture was the final test.

4. All Traditions Must Be Tested by Scripture

Tradition, therefore, can be either good or bad. Scripture must test them. The traditions that have been passed down can be helpful in understanding biblical truth. However, the light of God’s Word must test them all. The psalmist wrote about seeing things in God’s light. He said:

For with You is the fountain of life; In Your light we see light. (Psalm 36:9 NKJV)

The Contemporary English Version says:

The life-giving fountain belongs to you, and your light gives light to each of us. (Psalm 36:9 CEV)

To conclude, we emphasize that traditions are neutral. They can be either good or bad.

However, once the Scripture was completed, tradition has no place in determining Christian belief or practice. Christian belief and Christian practice are determined by the Scriptures alone.

Summary – Question 5
What Is the Place of Tradition in Determining Christian Doctrine?

The word, “tradition,” has the idea of “handing something over.” Scripture has things to say about the subject of tradition.

The New Testament speaks approvingly of certain traditions about Jesus. Therefore, some traditions are good. However, Jesus Himself warned of traditions that were contrary to the Word of God. Consequently, we may also have some bad traditions which are against God’s Word.

In the history of the church, a number of traditions have risen that are at odds with the Bible. These must be rejected.

Accordingly, traditions can be either good or bad. The key question about any tradition is, “Does it match up with Scripture?” Now that we have a Scripture that is complete, tradition has no place in determining what Christians should believe or how they should behave.

These questions can only be settled by the teachings found in the Word of God.

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