Thursday, March 17, 2011

Looking at Tradition

So here we go! I am ready to begin a discussion that could be the most important discussion in modern Christianity. The discussion: What is tradition, and what role does it have in my life and the life of the church (universal and local)? This question is crucial because it beckons us to consider what is authoritative and binding upon the life of a believer.

Today I want to begin by examining exactly what is meant by "Tradition." Different groups within the church will place different definitions upon tradition. Most Protestant groups will consider tradition as simply the life, actions, and teachings of the church in the past. These are to be examined, understood, and judged based upon the one unchanging guide for the church, the Scriptures. Traditions that are against Scripture are to be disregarded, but traditions that are perfectly accepted are not necessarily to be praised or practiced, because traditions are not necessary for the life of the church.

I am a Protestant. I was raised with this basic view of tradition my entire life. I cannot claim that I agree with it completely, and frankly, most in the pews don't really believe this either. To test this point, change when you do communion, use different words during a baptism, preach using a music stand instead of a pulpit, and you will see that there is importance on tradition in peoples mind. The issue is which tradition these faithful cherish.

The Catholic teaching on Tradition is completely different. Tradition, according to their catachism, comprises all of the teachings of the apostles, both in their lives and in their writing of the Sacred Scriptures (Catechism 76). The life of the apostles, and those whom they appointed their heirs (which we shall discuss in full another day), are of equal standing to the word written down in Scripture. Tradition, then, is not the actions of local churches, but is taught and displayed only in the "living, teaching office of the church alone" (Cat. 85). This office, we find in the next statement is the "bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome" (Cat. 85). Tradition, then, is formed by the bishops and primarily through the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. His words, when speaking as the Pope, are spoken as the word of God.

The Orthodox Church is again different. The Orthodox believe that it is impossible to distinguish between Tradition and Scripture because Scripture was born out of the Christian tradition, and tradition finds its anchor and foundation in Scripture. Orthodoxy, while desiring to respect the past, does not equate everything taught by the church to be God-breathed (a major difference from the Catholic view. In fact, "as Orthodox, while giving it due respect, we realize that not everything received from the past is of equal value. The Holy Scriptures, the Creed [speaking of the Nicene Creed] and the dogmatic and doctrinal definitions of the Ecuminical Councils hold the primary place in Holy Tradition and cannot be discarded or revised" ( They also say that only the 7 Ecumenical Councils hold unchanging truth. Why these councils? They were crucial to distinguishing truth from heresy in the first 5 centuries of Christianity. Most Protestants hold to the teachings of at least 4 of these councils. Unlike Catholicism, Orthodoxy believes that the words and actions of the bishops can be fallable, can be incorrect, and are subject to change based on careful study of the foundation of our faith--The Scriptures (being informed and interpreted by the Creed and the Councils).

With these 3 views in mind, there are several key questions for us to consider in the days to come:

1. Were the apostles blameless both in their words and actions?
2. Did the apostles hand down their job to others through "apostolic succession?"
3. What authority do bishops possess in the church?
4. Did the church really form Scripture? How was Scripture formed?
5. When did the Bible exist as we have it today?
6. What is the role of the individual Christian in the interpretation of Scripture?
7. Is God still speaking now in the same manner as he did in the Scriptures? Does God still give us new, binding commands?
8. What is the office of the Pope, and what authority, if any, should he have on your life?

I will attempt to address each of these questions in the days and weeks to come. Until then, please let me know your current view of tradition. Did I miss something crucial in my summaries (and these are summeries!) of these views of tradition?

Until next time.


  1. Is Scripture the "one unchanging guide for the church?" If so, how do you interpret I Tim. 3:15 which states, "I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth." If the church, as pillar and support of the truth, does not serve as a guide to truth, what is the intent of Paul's message in that verse?

  2. One of my favorite verses, and I promise that I will discuss it later. At this point, however, I am merely introducing the basic viewpoint I have encountered in Protestantism, and what I have studied to be the other basic viewpoints that exist in Orthodoxy and Catholicism.