The Necessity of Tradition for Theological Interpretation (Part 1)

The Necessity of Tradition for Theological Interpretation (Part 1) February 27, 2018

One area that evangelicals have generally been weak on, or even hostile to, is in their attitude towards tradition. Many evangelicals have tended to fear tradition as something that is cold, stale, and purely of human origin. The hostility towards tradition is easy to understand.

First, during the Middle Ages there emerged a view of tradition as something apart from Scripture that was considered just as authoritative as revelation. A stream of unwritten sources were vocal where the Bible was silent. This supposedly living tradition provided an authoritative source of God’s will, parallel to Scripture but separate from Scripture, as revealed through the church fathers, councils, popes, and magisterium. In Catholic dogma, the tradition of the Roman Church was said to have been handed on by the apostles themselves and has been faithfully transmitted thereafter.[1] In contemporary practice, when Roman Catholics tackle a theological subject, they often begin with recent papal encyclicals, look back on various councils, engage with the church fathers, and only get Scripture at the very end as something of an afterthought. So a degree of aversion to this view of tradition is quite warranted.

The problem with that approach to tradition is, as the Reformers pointed out, that Catholic leaders claimed that the faith was always the same, even while introducing doctrinal innovations that were clearly secondary, late, and of questionable legitimacy (e.g., the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary; papal infallibility; penance and purgatory, etc.). Or else, Scripture gets treated as simply as the beginning point of the tradition, and it is the subsequent elaboration of the tradition that does the heavy lifting in theological discourse. Concerning the errors of Catholic use of tradition, one famous example comes to mind. At Vatican I (1869-70), one theologian at the council, Cardinal Guidi, rejected a proposal to formally ratify papal infallibility, and he instead urged a more moderate formulae which stressed the priority not the absoluteness of the Pope’s doctrinal definitions. That would mean in practice that the Pope would still give serious consideration to prior tradition and consult with the college of bishops on dogmatic issues. The proposal did not impress Pope Pius IX who protested with the famous words, Tradizione! La tradizione son’ io!, “Tradition! I am the tradition!”[2] If that is tradition, then obviously there are good reasons to be against it. However, as we will see, there are other ways of viewing and valuing tradition besides an old guy in a white hat stomping his foot like an angry toddler. As an interim statement, consider this: while there are bad traditions, not all tradition is bad.

Second, we need to acknowledge that there is, quite sadly, a discernible bias against the word “tradition” in our English Bibles. The Greek word paradosis and verbal cognates are often translated as “teaching” or “instruction” when describing what the apostles taught, but the same Greek word gets translated as “tradition” when referring to something attributed to the Pharisees, Jewish teachers, or pagan philosophy. Think about that, it means that our translations are prejudiced because they associate “tradition” with legalism, false teaching, and heresy. Consider the following examples from the NIV.[3]


Paradosis as Good Teaching/Instruction


Paradosis as Bad Tradition
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance (Rom 6:17) Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? (Matt 15:2-3)
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess 2:15) I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Gal 1:14)
Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. (Jude 3) See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ (Col 2:8)

As you can clearly see translations like the NIV – and the KJV and ESV are no different – clearly associate the word “tradition” with the biblical villains. So of course people in the pews are going to have a negative estimation of tradition if you use the word “tradition”  this way. I haven’t seen something this rigged since the Democrat National Committee rigged the 2016 primary for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. According to Edith Humphrey, “Because of our language and because of the way that translators influence us, English readers are frequently shaped to adopt a negative view of tradition, and this needs to be rethought.”[4]

Rather than adopt a jaundiced view of tradition, rejecting it entirely, what we need is two things: (1) a better account of tradition; and (2) to determine the proper use of tradition in theology.

So stay ready for part two in a few days!


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