Scripture versus tradition….
Most of us have heard something of this debate, which goes like this: Does scripture or tradition hold higher authority for Christians?
For some, scripture is the obvious answer. Jesus lambasted the Pharisees because tradition caused them to violate God’s word (Matt. 15:3). Paul also warned the Colossians about the “empty deceit based on human tradition” (Col. 2:8).
At the same time, Paul urged churches to “hold to the traditions you were taught” and praised them when they did so (2 Thess. 2:15; 1 Cor. 11:2).
If we say scripture is a higher authority than tradition, whose interpretation of scripture do we mean? I met a guy who told me that Jesus meditated with a crystal hanging over his third eye, and that he could show me this from a passage in Psalms (he couldn’t find the passage, incidentally). Should scripture have authority when interpreted in such a way? Don’t we need the church—and tradition—to pass down the correct understanding of scripture? This doesn’t mean Christians agree on every single interpretation. It just means that the accepted meanings of biblical texts are maintained in the collective memory of tradition.
On the other hand, what if the collective memory of tradition fails or embellishes scripture as time goes on? What if a trusted teacher passes on something untrue and this untruth retains a place in tradition because of the teacher’s status? This is to say nothing of tradition-based bullying, where tradition can only be questioned at the risk of being alienated or excommunicated.
As I’ve considered the scripture/tradition dichotomy over the years, I’ve concluded it’s largely false. For starters—isn’t scripture part of tradition? The real question is, Which parts of tradition have more weight? If Paul says Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and a church father says departed Christians (AKA saints) can also mediate, how should we decide this question? Put more simply, if a later church father teaches something contrary to an apostle, where do our loyalties lie? Instead of pitting scripture against tradition, we need to *prioritize tradition*.
Scripture and tradition provide checks and balances to each other. But let’s restate this without perpetuating the false dichotomy: tradition, including scripture, is (or should be) self-correcting. Since Christianity involves humans, it inevitably deals with false teaching, customs that violate the gospel, wrong emphases, worldliness, and the like. At times, the apostolic witness corrects us when we’ve wandered in practice or belief. But if a group uses John 1:1 (an apostolic text) to show that Jesus was a created being, tradition says, “No, that isn’t what Christians believe. Jesus is God.”
Tradition’s self-correcting dynamic works if we let it. The trouble is, we resist correction. Sometimes we (mis)use scripture to rebut the collective mind of the church. Sometimes we reject the teachings of the apostles and Jesus Himself because of what has been handed down.
Dividing scripture and tradition just makes it easier to religiously justify rebellion. Instead, we need to face the witness of the church as a whole—in every time, place, and culture. This means being honest when voices within tradition clash. If they clash over something non-essential, we can accept differences of opinion. If they clash over essentials, we need to give preference to those who deserve it—especially Jesus and the apostles.
Jesus is the Word become flesh. He is, if you will, scripture embodied. We divide the word and the body—scripture and tradition—at the risk of dividing Christ. What God has joined man shouldn’t separate (Matt. 19:6).
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