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Shadows of Divine Things

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This site is devoted to theological and philosophical investigations of the spiritual meanings of life, current events, music, spiritual growth, nature, and learning to be attuned to listening to the 'language of God.' The name of this blog comes from one of Jonathan Edwards's journals which he called 'Shadows of Divine Things,' and later renamed 'Images of Divine Things.' As a Christian I am continously on a spiritual journey to grow more into the image of Christ, to understand what it means to be crucified with Christ. To seek the truths of the Christian Faith is of upmost importance, and to know that any truths that are found outside of Christianity are present there because they ultimately point to God. I have an M.A. in theology and apologetics and I completed one year of graduate studies in Philosophy at Marquette University.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Protestant View of Tradition (Introduction)

Having been raised a Protestant, in a Southern Baptist Church, I can safely say that the issue of Tradition, in my life anyway, has been either greatly misrepresented, or greatly misunderstood by many Protestants. Moreover, tradition has, for the most part, simply been ignored altogether. In fact, the issue of tradition, in the Southern Baptist Church of my youth, was not even an issue. It was never mentioned nor ever talked about as far as I can remember.

I was never introduced to this thing called tradition as it relates to the Church until I became a Presbyterian. It was actually through Presbyterian scholars and theologians that I was introduced to tradition. The first time I ever met R.C. Sproul (in 1995) he wrote a list of theologians from the past who he recommended that I read. Three of these men on R.C.’s list were St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Anselm of Canterbury, and St. Thomas Aquinas. It was through this list and these famous theologians/philosophers that I was introduced to the Church doctrine of tradition.

But even at that time, upon reading R.C.’s recommended list, I was still confused about tradition. Was it necessary? What was its purpose? What did it mean? Could it possibly be infallible contrary to so many well known conservative pastors and theologians in certain Protestant “evangelical” circles who declared that the Catholic Church placed tradition on par with the Scriptures? This is a big ‘no, no’ in certain Protestant circles. But what does it mean? These were the questions I was asking myself as I was growing in my knowledge of Christianity and Christian Church history.

Therefore, having been influenced by certain Protestant thinkers, I concluded, quite dishonestly I must add since I really never did the research and merely took what certain men said at face value, that tradition, in my meager understanding of it, was simply something that Protestants rejected altogether. And rightly so, since we as Protestants hold to Sola Scriptura, and anything beyond the written authority of the Bible is simply the ‘words of man’ and suspect. So tradition certainly was suspect.

But then I would read certain passages from the Bible which seem to declare, contrary to my position of tradition at the time, that perhaps there is something here of larger weight and importance than I had first concluded. The apostle Paul, for instance, certainly places a very high degree of importance on the tradition of the apostles. In Paul’s second epistle to the Thessalonians he declares, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15; ESV) In this passage Paul declares several important things.

First, we as Christians are to “stand firm and hold fast.” But what are we to stand firm and hold fast to? The answer is, ‘the traditions that you were taught by us [the apostles].” Second, how were these traditions taught by the apostles? Well, the text says these traditions were taught in two ways. First, “by our [the apostles] spoken word,” and second, “by our [the apostles] letter.” Of course, “by our letter” would be the written word.

This one passage certainly raised several questions in my mind. For instance, what is the tradition of the apostles? What does Paul mean when he uses the word tradition?
The Greek word Paul uses here is paradoseis. In this context the word is plural and in the accusative case which means that paradoseis is a transmission of a doctrine or doctrines (since the use is plural), or depending on the context, it can mean the doctrine itself. However, we see in Mark’s gospel, chapter 7 verses 8-9 Jesus holds a certain contention with the notion of the Pharisees' idea of tradition.

In these verses, Jesus states, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. And he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:8-9 ESV) Prima Facie this verse seems to declare that Jesus is rejecting the notion of tradition altogether. But this certainly cannot be the case for it were then Paul would be contradicting Jesus. However, Jesus is certainly using the same word as Paul, only in Mark’s gospel, the word is now singular instead of plural, but it is certainly the same word. But we must take into consideration the most basic rule of hermeneutics—context, context, context!

In Mark, Jesus is certainly rejecting the “tradition” of the Pharisees. But according to the context of Mark, the tradition that the Pharisees held to is quite different from the tradition of the apostles (as Paul describes). The tradition of the Pharisees was a tradition that was established by man, this is indicated in verse 9 when Jesus plainly declares the tradition of the Pharisees was one that is of man. How do we know this? Well, two ways; first Jesus contrasts the Commandment of God and the tradition of men (this is seen in both verses). Second, Jesus states that the commandment of God is rejected for the tradition of men. This certainly means that the Pharisees have elevated their doctrine or tradition over and against God’s commands. This is clearly sinful and would indicate that what God established is rejected for what man established.

Moreover, this demonstrates there is a difference between the two, and one is certainly established by God, while the other can only be established by man, otherwise, it need not be scorned in this passage. Jesus would certainly not scorn or warn against anything that was established by God. So the Pharisees’ “tradition” was outside of the scope or realm of the divine. By this I mean that is was not established by God. This being the case, we know it runs contrary to God’s word or commands. However, in Paul’s passage he tells his reader to hold fast to the traditions of the apostles. The big question here is what are these traditions?

If the tradition Paul is speaking of in 2 Thessalonians was a tradition established by man then Protestants, as well as Roman Catholics would certainly be warranted in rejecting it. However, as Protestant’s believe, Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and Paul tells his reader to hold fast to the traditions of the apostles. Therefore, for us to hold fast to this ‘tradition’ it must have been one that was established by God in the new covenant of Jesus and transmitted to the apostles and thus passed on to us, the Church. Otherwise, Paul would not tell us to ‘hold fast to it.’

I have heard this passage from Mark used by Protestants to declare that Church tradition should be rejected because it is a tradition of man, and not a commandment of God. I purport that this conclusion drawn from these verses in Mark is simply poorly performed hermeneutics, and to hold to such a view seems to ultimately lead to big trouble when dealing with other passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2:15 or I Corinthians 11:2.

So what are we as Protestants to think about Church tradition? What are we to think about holding fast to the traditions of the apostles? What, in fact, does this mean? And can Roman Catholics and Protestants ever see eye to eye on this issue? These are but a few questions I hope to answer in a few upcoming posts. How should we, as Protestants, view tradition? Keep checking back for more posts on this issue.

2 Comments:

Blogger Gordon Matthew C. Merk said...

I like that you make readers aware that rejecting tradition all together is wrong because it is a generalisation and because it is not biblical. Good argument from Thess! In Mark 7, I dare say, Jesus is rejecting the act of replacing God's commandments with men's - we can all do that, and the Church has, in fact, done it. But do you agree that we need to scrutinise all of church tradtion with the Bible? Sola scriptura.

1:57 PM, November 01, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think of Presbyterians as knowing much about Church tradition, at least without being highly selective. And, clearly, the authors recommended by Sproul where rather late, even Augustine. And that even his views did not rightly represent the Church's earliest historic traditions/doctrines was very clearly pointed out in his own day. Indeed, that his predestinarian views were much more akin to his past Gnosticism than true patristic orthodoxy was plaintly stated and clearly true. So, I question your use of tradition. For, if it were God's, it'd would have shown up in the centuries preceeding Augustine, no matter how you spin it. Moreover, the early church was not wholly uniform in its beliefs, even from the beginning, so....tradition....? If you accept it you gotta go Anglican since they take the broader view, actually knowing what the tradition was and is. And if you reject it as authoritative, you gotta go Baptist since they are more fully sola scriptura. As for Presbyterians....really the contrived and muddled middle. As a recommendation to read only Augustine, Anselm, and Acquinas as representative of tradition clearly shows. It's like pretending real history and concomitant traditions never actually existed. So that, apparently, Presbyterians can justify their theological fancies.

12:43 PM, August 30, 2012  

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