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Shadows of Divine Things

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Location: Texas, United States

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.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Protestant View of Tradition (Retold)

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 recall.

I was never introduced to this thing called tradition as it relates to the Church until I became a Presbyterian. In fact, it was actually through fundamentalist 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 whom he recommended 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 at that time, having read a few of the works on 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. At the time I thought rejecting tradition was the correct thing to do, 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 and sisters, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.” (2 Thess. 2:15; RSV) In this passage Paul declares several important things.

First, we as Christians are to “stand firm and hold to.” But what are we to stand firm and hold 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 us [the apostles] via word of mouth,” 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 human tradition. Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” (Mark 7:8-9 RSV) 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 AND Catholic's believe, Paul was writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and Paul tells his reader to hold to the traditions of the apostles. Therefore, for us to hold to this ‘tradition’ it must have been one that was established by God in the new covenant of Christ and transmitted to the apostles and thus passed on to us, the Church. Otherwise, Paul would not tell us to ‘hold 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? These are but a few questions that sometimes keep me up at night, and I have often times posted my answers to these questions in various articles on this blog (see the left hand margin of this blog for several posts on the issue of Church Tradition).

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting... I will be following this series of posts. Have you read Mathison on this?

If you want a snapshot of his views, you can read it in the March/April issue of Modern Reformation. Its a short 4 pages long, but very interesting.

God Bless!

9:27 PM, June 10, 2007  
Blogger T.B. Vick said...

Anon,

Mathison was a student of RC Sproul's at RTS in Florida, I have read some of his stuff on innerrancy, but nothing from him on Church Tradition.

If you want to read the rest of this "series" you will have to look to the left of my blog under "Favorites." This article was a simple rehashing of an article I posted a little over a year ago.

I used to subscribe to Modern Reformation for almost a decade but eventually let the subscription run out, if I can get a copy, I'll check out the article.

7:28 PM, June 11, 2007  

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